the new terrain of climate struggle (pt. 1)

A false contradiction, then, but not without its real effects. Social democrats — under their preferred albeit obnoxiously and historically imprecise moniker of ‘democratic socialists’ — have, it must be said, fostered an impressive ethos of “environmental stewardship” among the populace. In recent years, they have succeeded in convincing many Americans of the imminent necessity of systemic change in addressing our climate crisis. They have turned far more heads than the old guard of eco-socialists and green anarchists had ever turned, and in a fraction of the latter’s tenure. We should therefore make no mistake about it: what the social democrats (DSA, Klein, AOC, etc.) have been able to do, strictly in terms of propagandizing a narrative of our responsibility to the Earth, of the racialized and gendered dimensions of environmental harm, and of the moral culpability of “unfettered” capitalism — to use the tellingly compromising qualifier the NYT associates with Klein’s Disaster Capitalism — is nothing short of remarkable, particularly within the context of a US settler colonial culture which for centuries operated under the ideology that everything under the sun (things, bodies, and land) was, through God, the white man’s to alienate, exploit, and consume.

But politics is, pace DSA, not electoralism. Politics is principally not about filling “socialist” convention seats or voting “socialist” representatives into settler colonial institutions. These, of course, can serve as accessories to politics, but they are neither the means nor ends of politics. In truth, politics has very little to do with whatever ends up in a party’s platform or what gets articulated publicly by its officials. Rather, with respect to the case of climate struggle at hand, it has to do with where these energetic, motivated, “progressive” heads are turning and what and whose sensibilities, affectivities, and intelligibilities their turning is disrupting. Accordingly, the questions to be asking are not how many people have been made to care about climate change, or how many people today label themselves “socialists,” but where, exactly, are all these heads turning? Whose perspectives are they rupturing? Whose are they inventing, emboldening, and liberating?

Now, the social democrats would like to think their intervention is, on the one hand, toward an incremental implosion of the hegemonic capitalist worldview and, on the other, toward powerfully taking to task the wasteful, nihilistic, and wholly unfulfilling culture of Western consumption. However, they have so far been completely incapable of fostering or even gesturing toward a form of life conducive to the rupture of either. They share their horizons, still unbearably and indefinitely, with those of capital and state.

I return to my first point above: the GND, the most eloquent of the articulations of what we could consider the “progressive” or DSA party line, is premised not on the abolition of wage labor but its further intensification and indefinite proliferation through the expansion of new “green” jobs. It is not premised on the transformation of the form of value from capital to a heteronomy of social goods but the further exploitation of money as incentive for “renewable” energy. And, above all, it is not premised on an overturning of the totalizing organization of all life on Earth under capital but simply restraining this beast behind a bourgeois, settler colonial state.

This last dimension is a particularly baffling program for Western “socialists” to endorse — as if they aren’t playing the part of the Leviathan of the state which has always feigned a benevolent human face, as if it hasn’t always claimed to operate in the name of a People; as if the state hasn’t always played a formative, antimarket role in the cultivation of “free” trade; or as if the electoralist, nominally “inclusive” mechanisms of parliamentary democracy have ever been adequate checks against state-sanctioned violence or colonial plunder.

As of March 20, 2019, the US government has awarded Halliburton $39.5 billion in federal contracts, pramarily for military services and oil production in Iraq during and after the Iraq War. The 2002 congressional resolution which ‘legally’ authorized the use of military force in Iraq passed with a 297–133–3 vote among our democratically elected representatives. Photo: Senior Airman Julianne Showalter.

Thus, unfortunately what the GND line on climate change amounts to is little more than rhetorical flourish which would perhaps be commendable, given its army of converts and left on its own charismatic terms, if it didn’t work to mute or otherwise redirect the real sites of struggle, resistance, and insurgence. It cannot be overstated that this stage match between progressive representatives of “good”, GND-type environmental stewardship and “bad”, BP-type environmental stewardship will inevitably tire itself out long before ever reaching the real terrain of climate struggle. As it has been for 500 years, that war wages in, on, and around not the floating castles of colonial power but the dark soils of the Earth from which those castles have always drawn their energy. It is indeed precisely through the negation of Nature, the Indian, the Primitive, the Savage, and so on that the nexus of State and Capital continues to substantiate itself. The social democrats do not stand in the way of this vampiric process but, in the GND, vie to facilitate it.

And it is the destruction of what is marked as Other, in the context of climate struggle, which is what is being fought against today not by the electoralists but in unreliably effective but nevertheless vibrant compositions of sympathetic urbanites, rural settlers, and Indigenous communities. Thus, the good news is that, against the best attempts of social democrats qua “socialists” to mute real dissent for the sake of motivating and consolidating the “electorate,” these political movements are already occurring on their every edge. Moreover, the horizon toward which those folks move, whether it is ever to be reached, dreams a future far more emancipating than anything liberal democratic politicking could ever hope to gin up. Indeed, in the struggles against Line 3, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, we bear glimpses of a life truly worth living — one which, unlike the one bolstered by the social democrats, finds neither its means nor its ends in the miserably oppressive institutions of representative democracy.

Tribal leaders at the 2014 Reject and Protect gathering in Washington, D.C., a protest organized against the Keystone XL pipeline. Photo: Kristin Moe.

The bad news is, as a result of the fear of scaling up toward a ‘global’ analysis of political economy, these movements err on the side of hyper-localizing their own experiences of resistance and equivocating that with the structure of their experience. To be clear, the cultivation of solidarity between struggles is still very much possible and indeed encouraged in this frame (the very concept and widespread political purchase of Indigeneity is testament to this). But my point here is that this communication of solidarity is only possible if every concept is always already and forever taken to be embodied (i.e., never abstracted, no ‘universal’ concepts allowed in a decolonized world of heterogeneous forms of life). Within this analytical frame, concepts are either ‘authentic,’ embedded within their proper sociomaterial ‘context’ — that place from which they ostensibly originated — or they are the violently abstracted, alienated spoils of colonialism — concepts like ‘human rights,’ ‘class consciousness,’ or the Anthropocene, which would do nothing but violently re-present, e.g., Indigenous identity, in universalizing, ostensibly Eurocentric terms.

My argument, then, is that ‘universalism’ has becomes not only hostile to the possibility of critical solidarity but, precisely, the unthought which structures the decolonial framework. For precisely this reason, we see the constant refrain among decolonial thinkers of the necessity of “grounded normativity,” of the particular embodiments of nature vis-à-vis “earth beings,” and, especially, of capitalism as the violent appropriation which characterizes any and every universalism, as nothing other than “accumulation by dispossession” (the last, interestingly, borrowed heavily in decolonial literature from the otherwise rather ‘macroscopic’ Marxist geographer David Harvey).

I repeat: the hostility against a ‘global’ or ‘totalizing’ analysis of political economy is not in the least bit naïve. It is inevitable as a political strategy of survival. One will always be forced to vehemently reject a professedly universal system which does not include oneself, and, even more, in order to live, one has no choice but to reject the universality of its representations, whether critical or dogmatic, within which one cannot recognize oneself or one’s form of life. I do not at all mean to disparage this tendency toward suspicion or outright rejection of the universal, a tendency which, to be sure, is not merely a negation of the system but an affirmation of the “not-all,” as Rancière would say, a tendency which is politics par excellence.

So, I am not at all saying that the problem today within climate struggle is the lack of radical possibilities— against the social democrats and the GND, there are emergent radical forms everywhere, as there always have been. And neither am I saying that the problem is one of the communication and consolidation of experience, i.e. the fostering of critical solidarities. Rather, I am arguing that the pure rejection of any ‘total’ analyses in climate struggle, however warranted, yields a symptomatic inhibition of the communication of structure.

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