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Monday, May 14, 2007

A response to a liberal criticism of the anti-Gore flier

Typically I do not do this, but I have been involved in a discussion on another blog about technology and it's applications, as well as the relevance of a critique of technology and, specifically anti-industrialism, and I thought it might be of interest to readers of my blog. This discussion got its start as a response by a blogger to a flier I wrote and handed out at an Al Gore speech at ASU. I engaged the blogger on her/his page and a pretty lively back and forth has developed. There are two threads to this discussion, which I will link below. The first is the current one and the last is the older one, which includes his/her original response to my flier. Aside from the interest that I think readers here will have in the arguments there, I post my response here because of size limitations on livejournal. I am the anonymous poster on the thread. I would post under Phoenix Insurgent, as I normally do on discussion threads, but I don't have a livejournal account.

Here are the two links for background:
(1) The newest discussion thread, to which the below text is a response
(2) The older thread, which contains his/her response to my flier.
Below is my response to the blogger's most recent post:
The point on direct action being criminal is really not an important one, I think. By definition, much direct action is criminal because it breaks the law. Sometimes that is precisely the point. Nevertheless, the law is not generally useful as a metric of what is right and wrong. I think this is a red herring and not relevant to our discussion. For Black folks to sit at a lunch counter in Mississippi in the 50’s was illegal, too, so the direct action that challenged it was obviously criminal. Surely you are not advocating against that direct action merely because it was against the law? I know you must not really think that. White people made the law and Blacks were entirely forbidden to participate in the electoral process, so what legitimacy did it have for Black people that they were bound to recognize beyond that which the violence of the government and the terrorist Klan compelled them to?

We just fundamentally disagree here. Despite your assertions, I have said, for instance, that I am much more interested in the dismantling of industrialism than I am in hunter gathering. I will take hunter gathering if we can get it, because it is the freest humanity has ever been, but being a realist I recognize that this jump is not feasible now. Not immediately. As a long term goal, it is entirely possible to consciously reduce population and begin to re-introduce wildness and other pre-agricultural lifestyles. In the short run, dismantling industrialism can be managed without a state through self-organization, federation and mutual aid. No one needs to be marched to a work camp in the countryside (although in a real sense, the current system marches billions more into work camps in the cities right now).

But specific technologies have been refused before through the work of mass-movements or the spread of critical ideas. The Amish do indeed offer an American vision of a broad and useful critique of tech. But, take nuclear power, for instance. Between the anti-nuclear direct action movement and a series of terrible accidents, the US and other countries were basically forced to impose a nuke plant freeze for quite a long time. Similar debates and direct actions are taking place around gmo food, stem cells and other technologies. Cell phones are banned from certain places, and cultural pressure serves to limit their use despite the ubiquity of the technology (theatres, for instance). Families in many cities have gathered together to stop the proliferation of cell phone towers in their neighborhoods and on their schools. To say that we cannot choose to refuse or end certain technologies is to say that these debates and political/cultural struggles did not take place. Further, it is to offer the technology boosters free reign to manipulate our lives based on other than human-centered values. That is clearly wrong. These movements result from the self-organization of people against systems and technologies they see as detrimental and against their interests. So, we know that given good solid arguments and evidence, a case can be made for the refusal of specific technologies and even broader sciences and that people will participate. There is precedent.

Maybe the carrying capacity of the planet, with non-industrial agriculture is only 600 million to a billion or so (after all, much of the population still doesn’t subsist on the produce of industrial agriculture). Neither of those is an impossible number to achieve. Nevertheless, one could, for instance, dismantle much of industrialism without even having to touch food production immediately. A huge chunk of industrial capitalism is completely unrelated to real needs. Further, much has already been produced. Unnecessary production can be stopped immediately without serious consequences to life. Ending that then provides space for the dismantling of still further production, like oil and other energy. Heck, the elimination of the US Navy alone would also eliminate the planet’s largest user of diesel fuel.

So a movement against tech is both totally realistic and possible, and we know that there is a base of resentment and distrust of technology – not to mention the alienation it creates - on which this movement can and is building. The media doesn’t represent it, but why would it? Does the media, lapdog of the capitalists (to use some jargon) and dominated by rich, white men generally represent adequately workers struggles, or the struggles of people of color or poor people or of women? Of course not. That doesn’t mean those struggles don’t have support or that there isn’t an opportunity for successful organizing.

But, will it succeed? That is what I suppose you really mean when you ask about whether it is realistic, etc. That’s a good question. There isn’t much time. Tech has wrought havoc on the planet for sure, but also on our social relations, making and remaking them in the interests of a ruling class that wants isolated and easily manipulated and replaced workers. Despite the assertions of pro-tech folks, organizing has not been made easier with the internet – not when it comes to regular working class folks. The internet is pretty useful for organizing middle class folks, no doubt.

But time is surely running out.

Still, we need to ask ourselves what the high tech solution has to offer us. More of the same? So far it has brought us mechanized warfare, industrial devastation, alienated work, hundreds of thousands dead on the roads and more from pollution related diseases every year. It has entrenched and enriched a ruling class that was very vulnerable a mere century or even less ago (witness the rise of super-national organizations). The rate at which diseases are jumping species is off the charts now thanks to industrialized medicine. Large swaths of Africa are now un-farmable thanks to global warming, and massive and unpredictable storms sweep the planet both of which we can also lay at the feet of industrialization. Earthquakes proliferate as the ice caps melt. Millions upon millions upon millions are displaced from their homes thanks to the so-called free markets that industrialism demands. The armies of the industrialized societies likewise displace millions more. The rate of extinction has now reached the point where it is now considered the sixth great wave in the last 400-odd million years. The last one was not the emergence of humanity – it was the one that got the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The promise of technology is always over the horizon, but no one ever feels the need to determine exactly how that will come about. What is the mechanism that holds tech developers or appliers accountable and guarantees us all nothing but wine and roses from the machinery of a system that has sought primarily to enrich and ensure the domination of an elite class? The state funds a massive percentage of the research (as a recent study revealed with biotech). The state is controlled by the elite, so it uses the machinery of government to subsidize (socialize) its quest for profit and control of society (and the working class in particular). What is left over is developed and applied by capitalists of massive wealth and privilege. Sure, there are some liberatory aspects of technology. For instance, we can have this conversation on the internet (although, in truth, we could have it either way because we live in the same city – probably the same neighborhood).

Still, those liberatory aspects come with a price, and that is the control that these technologies give to the ruling class and the technocrats. And the alienation we all feel every day. Think about it: Why is it that when it comes to technology we somehow assume that despite who funds it, who applies it, who develops it and who can afford to consume it, somehow this one thing in all of society will benefit everyone equally!? I mean, I don’t even have health insurance. This society can’t even make sure I and tens of million of others can go to a doctor! Why would I believe that it would use the rest of technology in some egalitarian way? It doesn’t do that with anything else, after all.

This is the burden that apologists for the current technological society must bear. It is their question to answer. If I had to answer it myself, I would suggest that the dominant view of technology is not, indeed, scientifically based, despite the emphatic assertions of its supporters to the contrary. Instead, it is ideological. Knowing that the dominant ideas of any time are in fact the ideas of its ruling class, why would we expect elite projects as they are expressed through their various mouthpieces in the media and government to be presented as anything other than universally held? Didn't they do also that with the invasion of Iraq? There is no difference.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Tue May 15, 09:16:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Phoenix Insurgent said...

First, I want to point out that there is a fair amount of research into the relationship of earthquakes to melting ice caps. New Scientist ran one piece that I can still find online, as well as this one which is now mirrored on a discussion forum. A simple search on Google revealed several more articles here, here, and here (these are from radical sources like the Wall Street Journal, etc). This isn’t the core of my argument, but I wanted to point out that I’m not some crackpot out in the wilderness on this one like you seem to suggest I am.

I’ve been as clear as I can be on what I mean by direct action. I don’t use the term civil disobedience for a reason, although as you define it I am not politically opposed to it. In my anti-Gore flier, I came out in support of the armed struggle that ended slavery. I have likewise come out in support of the direct action campaign that did not rely specifically on force of arms that helped desegregate the South. Really, I don’t see what the problem is! You yourself say you support the Harper’s Ferry raid. I presume you support the slave insurrections and the joining of the Union Army by thousands of former slaves. What exactly is the confusion? And what exactly is the disagreement? Why are you so obsessed on this point? It really seems like a non-issue to me. You seem really stuck on this idea, which you have invented, that I want some small group of saboteurs to bring down industrialism with a few well-placed bombs and then march people into camps at the point of a gun. Nothing I can say will disabuse you of this false notion because it is an ideological one.

If your question is, “Will there be resistance to a program of de-industrialization?”, then I suppose the obvious answer is yet. There has always been violent resistance to anti-capitalist movements from the ruling class and some reactionary sections of the population. Political change of that order is rarely entirely peaceful. Of course, the current system is far from peaceful either. The fact is, we just don’t know how it will work out in advance. We can hope that it will be as peaceful a process as possible - or at least as peaceful as the elites will allow it to be. Do we have an obligation to be any more peaceful than they are? I don’t think so, even though I would certainly prefer it that way.

I’d like to say here that you seem totally unaware of the massive alienation and consequences that industrial civilization has wrought on those of us lucky enough to experience it. Depression, isolation, suicide, disconnectedness, cancers, asthma, autism, alcoholism, drug abuse… the list could go on and on. The effects of this system aren’t just toxic to the environment. The fact that you follow my argument through far enough to see that a vast percentage of the population wouldn’t have to work in factories if we stopped producing non-essential goods – only to find it a problem indicates to me the extent to which you have swallowed the big lie. My goodness! What would we do with all that free time? I tell you, you’d have a hard time warehousing me if I didn’t have to work but a few hours a week. And yet you worry if there will be enough busy work to go around to stave off boredom? This is perhaps the most frightening aspect of your argument because it lays bare the truth of your supposedly humanitarian argument. You don’t want me to enjoy my life. It seems you want me to stay busy with work or, when not working, with various technological distractions. Wow. This is the world you want for us all?

There is an alternative. But don’t take my word for it. Consider this recent article about Indian farmers resisting industrialization (brought to them courtesy of both the Communist Party and international capitalism, it is worth pointing out):

"I lost my son, I can't do anything about that, but I can save my land -- even if I have to sacrifice two more of my sons," she said, sitting in the midst of a crowd of angry villagers, a veil half pulled over her face.

"We want to live by farming, we don't want development."

Deep trenches have been dug in every road leading into Nandigram. Every few meters (yards), a barricade of rocks, logs or bricks blocks the way, while knots of angry men keep a wary eye on intruders. Police and government officials dare not enter.

Six people have been killed and more than 50 injured in weeks of protests since a leaked government document revealed plans to seize 19,000 acres of fertile land on the banks of the Haldi and Hooghly rivers, home to 38 villages and 100,000 people.

Perhaps the root of our disagreement is that I see the state of the environment as much more grim than you do. As I see it, the environment is on the verge of collapse. We see this in the extinction rate, the increasing temperatures, dead zones in the oceans – all the other various factors I have referenced previously. You do not, it seems. Hence you are willing to wait around lazily for the legal process to slowly “work”, filtered as it will be first through the interests of the elite, who desire first and foremost to stay rich, get richer and stay in control, environment be damned. Meanwhile, you would have us wait for some mystical technological solution to the problem. A solution, I will add again, that will of course empower a small class of elites and technocrats before it will help anyone else (that will be a prerequisite for its implementation and certainly the only framework through which they can conceive it). All we have to do is ask ourselves why the elite didn’t avoid this mess in the first place to view the prospect of waiting for them to act now skeptically.

I don’t think we have time to wait. Things are critical and the time is now to make the case and push for radical change. As you point out, the curves plot steadily upward at ever-increasing rates. We must act now. Your suggested path, according to the UN and NASA, will raise temperatures by at least six degrees globally and as much as ten degrees on the East Coast of the US. It will lead to the continued desertification of Africa and the disappearance of its rivers and lakes. It will continue to force tens of millions upon tens of millions (driven off their lands by capitalism, the state and environmental collapse) to swarm into the slums that now constitute the home for a huge and ever-increasing percentage of urban dwellers, where they will subsist on pennies a day, only to be killed by the thousands by ever-increasing array of natural disasters. And do you expect that these folks will sit idly by for long, while you plot out the most pragmatic, peaceful and cautious path to reducing the effect of this collapse on you and the bank accounts of the world’s wealthy few? These folks will not sit still, as a recent British Ministry of Defence analysis reminds us.

These numbers and projections jibe precisely with your prescriptions. Following your recommendations, we can reasonably expect much of this to happen, and the consequences, believe me, will be felt first and most of all by the very people in the Third World that you claim to want to defend from the likes of me. I think it’s a little naïve to think that things will run smoothly in the world while we in the First World all figure out how to upload ourselves into our hard drives and launch them into space.

This brings me back to my first point above. Remember the earthquakes? The thing is, the future we are heading towards will very possibly be one of massive dislocation and death no matter what we do. However, I think that it is possible to de-industrialize – or at least to set ourselves very quickly on that path – in short order in a way that can avoid the worst of it. It is a political possibility and, your assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, the poor of the world – much less the relatively wealthy – will definitely not starve to death if we stop shipping cars, toys, computers, XBoxes, novels, DVDs, Big Macs or any of the rest of the consumer trash that makes up so much of our global trade. Indeed, it is the global system of capitalism that has kept them in poverty for so long.

Eliminating a system that does not benefit them now can only help them. Right now, the West acts like a global black hole, sucking in all the wealth and energy and kicking next to nothing back to its producers. Overturning capitalism and industrialism will stop this backwards flow of resources. Freed from the dictates of the global elite and the selfish consumerism of the First World, the rest of the world will be in a strong position to evaluate for themselves the necessity and supposed benefits of industrialization. Given that they have not traveled far down the path of industrialism yet, and that most the industry there exists specifically for Western convenience, I find it highly likely that they will not opt for an industrialized lifestyle. Meanwhile, we can deconstruct ours.

Tue May 15, 05:57:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Wed May 16, 12:41:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Phoenix Insurgent said...

What I hear you saying is that, yes, global warming (which is basically a synonym for industrialism these days, given their clear and obvious relationship) can cause earthquakes.

What I also hear you saying is that you wish the more radical voices in the global warming debate - the ones that have been around the longest and have been proven right (not to mention the ones that have put their shit on the line with direct action) - would stick to what you consider pragmatic, non-scary arguments that you think don't enrage or empower the right.

Well, that's one strategy. It's one that makes sense if you see the liberals and right locked in a battle about global warming. But, from another perspective, the liberal left and the right share far too much in common to be trusted with this debate or to offer solutions. In my opinion, neither offers the kind of radical change needed to save the planet from the worst of what is coming, primarily because they are both dedicated to industrialism, which is at the heart of the planet's problem. Both liberal and right wing governments have been quite happy to allow the destruction of the environment, after all.

So, how about you let anarchists deal with the reaction that anarchists' comments on global warming elicit from the right? As with the total lack of support from the liberal left for ELF and other environmental direct action prisoners, I expect nothing different when it comes to the broader fight. I am quite content allowing you to worry about what kind of reaction the liberals get out of the right. Our struggles, as I think I have amply laid out here, are quite different ones.

To me, your position really just looks like more of the same with a sprinkling of wishful thinking in the technology arena and some odd hope of colonizing space (thus allowing capitalists to bring their destructive tendencies to other planets). This attitude might be a result of any number of factors that I could speculate on, but in the First World it generally comes down to privilege.

Perhaps you do not suffer under the system of capitalism. Perhaps it works out pretty well for you. I don't know. But what I do know is that for whatever reason you do not want to attack the root cause of global warming - industrialism - even though you admit that this is the cause. Neither do you seem to want to hold the class that caused it - the capitalist class - accountable for their crimes. As far as I can tell, you want them to go on making money, perhaps even by tidying up around the edges of the mess they made. Likewise, I don't think you are terribly interested in ending the imperialism that supports tech development in the First World and that just means that rich Northerners, least affected by global warming, will remain in the driving seat when it comes to deciding what to do about it. Knowing that, is it any wonder that First World leaders are so interested in keeping this discussion so heavily focused on new technology?

It's no surprise, but you and I disagree entirely on this matter. You can go ahead and continue to work on minor reforms, if that's what you're doing. In a way, you can rest assured that barring the rise of a revolutionary movement, radical action to your left will help make your compromises palatable to elites still interested in exploiting the planet and its people.

Nevertheless, they won't be enough, or come soon enough, to save the planet and all of us on it from massive dislocations and disaster, some of which I have listed previously but which also include diseases (malaria, dengue fever, etc), starvation and war (Darfur - genocide). That's not a radical opinion, however, that's reality. It's going on now and it will only get worse. Ask the British Ministry of Defence. Ask the American Department of Defense. They are actively planning for these certainties right now - and believe me, they hope to deploy much of the technology you seem to have deep affinity for against the world's poor, as they are now in Iraq.

You can go ahead and hope that somehow, despite having no history of this in four hundred years of imperialism, the elite in the First World will suddenly have a change of heart and set about making a just and fair world that empowers and does not exploit the planet's majority. Myself, I see no indication that the ruling class will ever change. And that's what makes the difference between liberal and revolutionary politics.

It's that simple.

Wed May 16, 06:19:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Wed Jun 13, 01:21:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Phoenix Insurgent said...

Thomas, in all sincerity, thanks for the response, but I have to say that I don't have the time to respond in the length that I think you demand.

Perhaps it's because you're an academic, or some kind of grad student, but I just don't have the time that you seem to have to respond in the kind of length that you seem to prefer. Relationships, activism, music and, most of all, work, preclude me from spending my writing energies so liberally. I hope you understand.

Further, your line by line response style is practically unreadable and takes things out of context. Let's try to make coherent arguments that don't involve disconnected paragraph-length responses to single lines taken out of context.

As far as our debate goes, I think the important points have already been said. I will do my best here to summarize what I see as the reasons for our disagreement.

Part of your argument is not with me, but it is with assumptions you have made about my position along with some assumptions you have about what the result of even a careful, political dismantalling of industrialism would mean. I am not a rigid ideologue and am willing to admit that I don't have the entire answer to the planet's problems (unlike so many who prescribe more science, more technology and more capitalism with religious zeal). Nevertheless, we fundamentally disagree on the nature of life without industrialism and even it's political nature. And here's why.

Some of it is purely because of your liberalism, which causes you to worry about the social effects a move like that would have, such as a re-evaluation of work as an institution (including one of social control and profit for a few) and the supposed need for elites to run society, whether as technocrats, academics, bureaucrats, capitalists, union bosses or politicians. Some of it is what I would call technophilia - basically you are engaging in a reification of technology and have a fondness for it that eschews criticisms out of fear of overturning the apple cart. I don't believe you are a (small 'd') democrat when it comes to tech. Public participation doesn't seem to be all that important to you. I, on the other hand, am a radical democrat in this sense. Mine makes room for all kinds of decisions about tech to be made, even if I myself advocate for specific arguments. Yours is an ideological position, not a "scientific" one (as you might define it). This ideological view of technology jibes pretty well with your liberalism, both of which rely on elite and massively bureaucratic institutions.

Another reason for our disagreement is just a basic, divergent view on just how critical our situation is and the likelihood and even the desirability of using science and more technology and industrial production to solve it (or, as you say, to preserve humanity from a meteor strike in the next million or so years). But technology brings with it a variety of consequences (like specialization, bureaucracy, a gigantic state and exploitation of humans and the environment) that even if one problem were solved, many others would arise or be exacerbated. Further, you have faith in the ability of a small elite to be trusted with the development and implementation of these technologies, believing that somehow, despite their own class and self-interest, they will apply these technologies progressively and liberally (even though those that will allegedly benefit have been locked out of the debate on implementation and development).

Finally, we also disagree on the presentation of the facts on ecological collapse. Not necessarily on the substance of them, I would point out - at least not significantly (although your recent equating of agriculture with the massive ecological destruction of industrialism has me worried a bit). However, I think that the alarm must be raised as loud as possible and that the solution to our problem is a radical one. You think a more moderate argument is necessary so that folks accept the changes that a moderate political elite is willing to go along with (seeing that as an improvement over the inaction of a slightly more conservative elite). It's not that I don't understand that, or even understand why you might prefer that. As I said, the solutions I propose are radical. And that’s because the situation is dire indeed and I don't think the political elite is either up to or can be trusted to carry out the kind of solutions we require. Reforms and supposed progress and charity from the state, the capitalist system, the NGO's and the technological bureaucracy is paternalistic at best, genocidal at worst and regardless never puts those whose problems are being solved in the position of actually allocating resources and making decisions about those problems for themselves.

Whose argument will win out? That's the question and we debate, flyer, agitate and organize so that we can answer it (I'm hoping you do something other than vote when it comes to your environmental convictions). There were moderate abolitionists, too, I should point out. Folks like Daniel Webster and Lincoln who urged accommodation with the slave holders and the maintenance of the Union above all. The Union, it was argued, was far too valuable and progressive as an institution to risk it over something like slavery. Of course, there were millions of slaves who disagreed. At the same time, other abolitionists, like William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, Harriet Tubman and others advocated for no compromise and even radical direct action of the kind that certainly shocked both moderates and conservatives alike. In fact, up until the Civil War they argued for the secession of the North from the South, because they correctly recognized that the liberal, middle of the road, accommodationist position of the moderates was as much responsible for the continuation of the system of slavery as the slave holder himself. After all, how long would the system have lasted without the North returning escaped slaves, continuing normal economic relations with the South and admitting states paired one slave and one free?

When it comes down to it, this is the crux of our disagreement. Your slow, pragmatic response may soon be surpassed by the demands of folks in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, the Inuit, the Bushmen and others, as the real, critical effects of global ecological collapse begin to be felt more and more seriously. Here at home, too, forces are at play that may force the hand far before folks like you are ready to play. Certainly, these days (after decades of inaction or worse) liberals, conservatives, capitalists, bureaucrats and technocrats of all kinds are eagerly pushing for a seat at the table out of the fear that the people themselves may demand action far beyond the elites ability to make a profit and stay in control. And, though they may sound unreasonable to you and the elites both, there may come a time when folks like us may not care anymore for liberal pragmatism.

Or perhaps middle of the roaders on the left will manage to stave off radical change long enough that nothing can be done and radical action will be forced upon us in a much less prepared way by the Earth itself, as we descend into a world of mass refugee migrations, super-slums, rising seas, scorching desertification, widespread disease, crop failures and ever more destructive and prolific resource wars and mass terrorism. Or perhaps, on the other hand, middle of the roaders will facilitate the increasing technologization of the rest of our lives, saving us from the worst of global warming but stripping us of all autonomy, independence, privacy and freedom in their quest to stay a pragmatic course towards solving the planet’s problems. In both those cases, my prescriptions will look moderate indeed, believe me.

Time will tell. I have a feeling we'll know before the meteor hits.

Wed Jun 13, 06:35:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Thu Jun 14, 02:25:00 PM 2007  

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