What does Left radicalism look like in an age of climate breakdown? Should the state assume control of subsoil resources to fund social spending and reduce inequality, or oppose extractive development at all costs? Such questions are interrogated in Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador by Thea Riofrancos, where we are invited to contemplate the tensions emerging between the ‘left-in-power’ and the ‘left-in-resistance’ through the lens of Ecuador’s recent political history.
The triumphant election of socialist president Rafael Correa in 2006, on a promise to end the ‘long night of neoliberalism’ and reverse regressive structural reforms with support from the country’s powerful social movements, turned sour after the new government abandoned proposals to leave oil in the ground and accelerated mining projects. A discourse of radical resource nationalism, which decried US imperialism and the control of oil, gas and minerals by foreign corporations, previously united social and political movements and helped propel the Left to power. However, new cleavages opened up between a state seeking revenue to fund spending on infrastructure, public services, and cash transfers to the poor, and erstwhile indigenous and environmentalist allies who opposed the deepening structural dependency on ‘extractivism’ as a betrayal of their cause. Riofrancos, a political scientist at Providence College, draws on ethnographic and archival data to illuminate the ways in which these struggles unfolded, with lessons that hold relevance across Latin America and for the world at large.
A discourse of radical resource nationalism, which decried US imperialism and the control of oil, gas and minerals by foreign corporations, previously united social and political movements and helped propel the Left to power
Departing from conventional state-centric analyses of resource governance, Resource Radicals foregrounds the collective agency of grassroots actors, pointedly rejecting an image of the state as a ‘monolithic dispenser of public policy’, unencumbered by internal division or broader popular support. The book also challenges the ‘resource curse’ thesis which has dominated scholarship, in which the revenues accrued from abundant resource wealth allows corruption and mismanagement to flourish, with detrimental effects for democracy and broader societal wellbeing. Instead, the book investigates how successive waves of social mobilisation and protest, spearheaded by Ecuador’s powerful indigenous movement, sought to challenge oil, gas and mining projects. Rather than transcending extractive capitalism, critics accused Correa of perpetuating Ecuador’s colonial status as an exporter of raw materials and its subordinate position within the world system, delivering ‘redistribution without structural change’. Resistance from indigenous communities, environmentalists, labour and anti-mining activists coalesced around an emergent discourse of anti-extractivism, juxtaposing the government’s radical rhetoric with its insistence on the development of indigenous territories, disregard for ecosystems, and repression of dissent. Drawing on indigenous philosophies of Sumak Kawsay or Buen Vivir (living well), activists rejected intensive exploitation of natural resources in favour of a radical, post-extractive civilisational model: ‘a total reordering of the relationship between individuals, communities, and nature, based on the principles of reciprocal collaboration’ (p.30).
At the centre of contestations was the status of Ecuador’s 2008 constitution, an ‘ambivalent document’ that both included provisions for citizen participation, Buen Vivir and the ‘rights of nature’, and simultaneously asserted the ultimate authority of the state over subsoil resources. Despite such tensions, it was subsequently embraced by anti-mining activists as a tool to legitimate their claims. Riofrancos provides a vivid account of how the constitution was invoked at key moments of political struggle, including the ten day long ‘March for Water, Life and the Dignity of Peoples’ that brought thousands to the streets for a 700km march from the Mirador copper mine in the Amazon to the Andean capital city of Quito. This discursive struggle to legitimate or contest extractive development elevated local communities as central protagonists through their constitutional right to prior consultation and consent, referencing Ecuador’s status as a multi-ethnic ‘pluri-nation’, and catapulting resource conflicts to the heart of political debate.
Riofrancos provides a vivid account of how the constitution was invoked at key moments of political struggle, including the ten day long ‘March for Water, Life and the Dignity of Peoples’ that brought thousands to the streets for a 700km march from the Mirador copper mine in the Amazon to the Andean capital city of Quito
The latter half of the book discusses how the process of community consultation was gradually diluted, as accusations and counter accusations erupted between the government accusing foreign NGOs of manipulating communities on the one hand, and critics accusing the government of violating collective rights on the other. The Correa administration embraced the language of technocracy, mirroring the discourse of mining companies by discussing conflicts over resource extraction as a ‘technical’ matter that could be solved by supplying the ‘correct information’ to ‘misinformed’ communities. The authority of the state was itself contested by indigenous communities, who rejected the image of passive compliance and contrasted their own intimate knowledge of their territories as ‘a living ecological and cultural landscape’ (p.140) with the unreliability of official data, which was ‘systematically biased’ and reliant on corporate estimations of mineral reserves. Riofrancos offers important insight into internal conflicts that beset the state itself, with Correa’s vociferous pro-mining position moderated by critical bureaucrats more sympathetic to the anti-extractivist cause. Ecuador’s development trajectory was thus moulded by both external constraints, internal state dynamics, and pressure from below.
As Ecuador elects a new president, there is much to be learned from Riofrancos’ account of how these events unfolded, which sheds light on the tense relationship between the state, social movements, and diverse political constituencies that all claim the mantle of the Left while offering starkly different visions of the future. Riofrancos avoids the pitfalls of binary thinking, providing an honest assessment of strengths and weaknesses of both state policies and social movement strategy. The book recognises the significance of rapid drops in poverty and inequality that occurred under the Correa administration while remaining alert to its failures, as it pursued development ‘without transforming the model of accumulation or the class relations that it generates’ (p.182). The vulnerabilities of this model – oil financed approximately one third of the state budget – were exposed with the abrupt end of the commodities boom that had generated resource rents, and contributed to the justification for austerity measures imposed under Correa’s successor Lenin Moreno. Yet as demand for metals and minerals intensifies to drive the renewable energy transition, mining remains an enticing prospect for future governments.
Resource Radicals marks an important contribution to burgeoning literature on resource politics and democratic practice, interrogating how ideological fragmentation exposed underlying ecological contradictions, evolving relationships between the state and citizens, and limits of prevailing development models. Despite the fallout between them, Riofrancos ultimately concludes that both ‘left-in-power’, and ‘left-in-resistance’ are essential to address the current planetary crisis in all its ecological and political dimensions. Rather than view ‘socialism’ and ‘anti-extractivism’ as two irreconcilable political projects, the book gestures to another possibility: ‘a political programme that demanded both the redistribution of oil and mining revenues and a transition away from the extractive model of accumulation that generates those revenues.’ In doing so, it offers lessons on how to navigate politically difficult terrain as resource struggles intensify, bringing nuance and insight to debates that will shape the world to come.
Benjamin Brown is a researcher and activist based in Edinburgh, Scotland, with an interest in land rights, extractivism, and climate justice. He tweets at @_dead_reckoning.
Earlier on in the pandemic there was a good deal of talk about what letter best represents the economic crisis that resulted from the COVID-19 virus. The first (and overly optimistic) suggestion was the letter V – that is to say a rapid decline of the economy followed by a rapid rebound. Other suggestions were a U (like the V, but a little more drawn out), the W (two back to back Vs) and an L (steep drop off, slow recovery).
None of these seemed, however, to accurately explain what was going on, so finally pundits and commentators introduced the idea of the K shaped recovery. This one is somewhat more difficult to understand than the others, partly because only the two diagonal strokes play into the visual metaphor, with the vertical stem being extraneous, but more importantly because it stretches the meaning of the word recovery itself.
Essentially, it divides the economy into two portions, one which has seen its fortunes dramatically increased, the other which continues to slide further into poverty. For the former category there has effectively been a boom without crisis, for the latter there has been an ongoing crisis without recovery. The stock market and home prices are increasing rapidly, while many people watch their financial troubles multiply with alarming speed. It seems obvious that this should not qualify as a recovery at all, but what then is taking place?
The Asset Economy, a new monograph published by Polity Books may help shed some light on the economic structures that could provoke this unusual K-shaped economic phenomenon. This slim volume, written by three Australian sociologists, Lisa Adkins and Martijn Konigs of the University of Sydney and Melinda Cooper of the Australian National University, focuses on the way asset ownership—primarily stocks and property—has become central to our economic system, but also to the ordering of social relations within our society.
The central argument of the book is that asset price inflation (especially property) has been the main driver of wealth since about the beginning of the 1980s. As wages have stagnated, rising stock, property, and notably home equity has allowed net worth to increase, at least for those who have access to asset ownership. That idea by itself is not novel, nor even controversial. Since the election of Margaret Thatcher all governments in the English-speaking world (and many others) have pursued this policy of ‘asset based welfare’.
In essence, this is a very individualistic strategy where social welfare programs are cut, unions are broken and people’s needs are met either by owning a stock portfolio or a home whose value increases over time, providing funds for retirement as well as life’s other needs.
The downside to this welfare strategy, of course, is that it requires the constant inflation of asset prices in order to remain viable. Its value creation strategy is entirely dependent on inflating asset prices specifically in relation to the prices of consumer goods overall, and more importantly in relation to wages. That means that as time progresses this form of “welfare” becomes more and more unattainable to larger and larger numbers of people, increasing the poverty of non-asset owning people, and making cities ever more unliveable.
Class is just not the same as it used to be
What is novel about the authors’ approach is the level of detail and attention they lend to this subject. One of the authors’ main ideas is that since the 1970s there has been a shift, where the main class antagonism in society is no longer centred around employment, i.e.: between people who labour and those who own the means of production, but instead between those who own assets and those who do not. As they state “[t]he key element shaping inequality is no longer the employment relationship, but rather whether one is able to buy assets that appreciate at a faster rate than both inflation and wages.”
The main class antagonism in society is no longer centred around employment but instead between those who own assets and those who do not.
This may seem a little like Thomas Piketty’s now famous r > g (return on investments is greater than GDP growth). Piketty’s formula suggests that if return on investments is higher than growth, then investment incomes for the wealthiest are based on syphoning money from the rest of the population, more than they are grounded in actual new wealth creation. This necessitates widening income inequality.
The authors explain, however, that Piketty tends to focus mainly on the very top of the economic hierarchy—those most heavily invested in the stock market, whereas their asset economy is more insidiously distributed throughout the upper and middle classes. Home ownership is particularly vital for entry into the asset economy by people below the very top of the wealth spread and as such “housing has become a significant generator of inequality.” The authors therefore argue that asset ownership is the primary engine of class distinction and inequality in the 21st century.
The authors also take care to distinguish the asset economy from rentier capitalism (which they claim focuses too much on the very top) and financialization (which they think focuses too heavily on making assets liquid, when a large part of the asset economy involves taking on large amounts of debt to buy illiquid housing assets).
Rentier capitalism, for quick clarification, is the idea that as the economy becomes more monopolistic, the owning class makes more if its income from parasitically charging rents and fees for access to services, rather than producing actually valuable goods and services. A good example of this would be increasing bank service fees – they do not actually improve a customer’s experience, but act like a kind of private tax.
Financialization refers to the growing role that financial activities and speculation have come to dominate the economy since the 1970s, replacing industrial production as the central driver of capitalism. In short this means that much more energy is devoted to playing the stock market, and loan markets in relation to investing in producing and selling products. A good example of this is how in the last ten years companies have invested profits into buying back their own stocks to drive up their prices, rather than investing in other more concrete, productive aspects of their businesses.
The authors also downplay the worker / boss relationship in relation to contemporary capitalist exploitation, in favour of the asset / no-asset dichotomy, partly because they believe the role of commodity production is now less important to the economy than long-term asset speculation, and also because class identity is now confused. There are white collar workers like journalists, magazine editors, NGO employees, etc… who are precarious and own no assets, while at the same time there are working class people who have managed to ascend on the asset-owning ladder (though they point out that this is rarer and rarer).
Inflation is sneaky
For some time I have been puzzling over the way economic and business people tend to talk about inflation. Analysts and commentators frequently explain that we live in a period of very low inflation.
This has always seemed somewhat absurd to me because the biggest expense in almost everyone’s life—the cost of housing—has seen prices skyrocket stratospherically in the past several decades. The authors make the same observation, noting that asset price inflation should today be considered part of inflation. As they state:
[T]he official story is that we live in a world without inflation… But this obscures the fact that inflation elsewhere has been central to the making of the neoliberal asset economy. Of course, we tend not to think of asset price inflation as inflation, but that is itself the product of a particular historical conjuncture and discursive configuration. It is therefore important to understand the transition from the Keynesian to the neoliberal era as a shift from price inflation towards asset inflation.
The authors observe that in the 1970s there was an opposite dynamic at play: wage and price inflation was high and asset prices were stagnating. As they explain “[t]he wage and consumer price spiral of the 1970s was the symptom of an undecided struggle between different social groups who sought to maintain their respective shares of the national income.”
What is most illuminating here is the idea that inflation is not simply a blunt process which either is or is not happening. On the contrary, as the authors show, it is a strategic battle between different actors in society. Different types of inflation benefit different portions of the population. Inflating asset prices is an indirect form of appropriation from those who do not hold assets because it erodes the value of their earnings, while increasing the value of asset owners’ holdings.
Inflation is not simply a blunt process which either is or is not happening, but a strategic battle between different actors in society. Different types of inflation benefit different portions of the population.
In a crude sense this inflationary process is like printing money out of nothing. While overall it diminishes the value of everybody’s individual dollars it transfers a greater and greater portion of those dollars into the hands of the asset owning minority. The value that asset holders create for themselves outpaces whatever debasement of buying power this process may engender.
The authors of the book are therefore at pains to show how asset wealth is different in character from other kinds of wealth. Key to this insight is the fact that assets don’t produce goods and services or surplus themselves. Rather, when the value of assets experience inflation, those who own assets are able to capitalise on them, while those who don’t see their buying power eroded.
It’s in this sense that finance, banking, and the asset economy are actually part of a privatized system for creating money. This affords the asset-owning minority a greater and greater ability to leverage this ‘money creation’ power over the structure and direction of the real economy—the actions people perform and things people make, that are the actual measure of wealth. People who hold assets then have a unique kind of power over others, because they are able to capitalise on this specific form of inflation (which is at odds with traditional wage and price inflation), while the rest of the population is excluded from the means for a stable and secure future. The book is extremely useful in clarifying this dynamic.
One of the weaker aspects of the book is to perhaps overstate the role of what the authors term the asset economy somewhat to the exclusion of the other frames that they outline their position against: rentier capitalism, financialization, and labour relations.
To take one example, one of the major drivers of financialization is cheap debt. Loading up on low interest loans is one of the drivers of asset price inflation as the authors observe, but it also allows real estate to arguably become much more liquid. These loans help make ever more expensive housing accessible to investors, fast growing equity makes it easy to sell these properties quickly and painlessly. Stories of condos being sold multiple times before they are even built are a testament to this process.
I would argue, somewhat against the assertions of the authors, that the asset economy is financialization. They are both part of a privatized money creation scheme (money is created in the form of cheap loans, inflating property prices, stocks, etc…), that shifts a greater and greater portion of the money (or if you prefer value) supply into the hands of a select few.
This is maybe an argument for a basic income of some sort—not that it would not create inflation, in the long term it likely would—but that it would increase inflation in the right direction, away from the hands of the private money creation industry and into the pockets of poor and working people. Since asset inflation, banking and finance are part of a privatized system of money creation—one that benefits mainly the people who own and control it, state monetary policy can act as a counterweight to this process. Similar to the question surrounding inflation, the issue at stake around money creation is not simply how much is too much, but who has the right to do it and for the benefit of whom? At any rate there is certainly more to consider in how these processes relate to contemporary class struggles.
Work relationships, assets, finance, rentier capitalism and other dynamics, I believe, all exist concurrently in a way that is somewhat more complicated than the vision laid out in this book. That said, the asset economy frame outlined by the authors is nonetheless very timely and does provide necessary clarification that gets missed from some of these other more widely discussed analyses.
This leads me to what I think is perhaps a bigger weakness in The Asset Economy: understating the role of production. The authors quite correctly observe that there is no “natural” way to measure prices—markets are contingent, arbitrary, socially constructed objects. They assert that inequality in society “works less and less through extraction and appropriation, and increasingly through the inflation and deflation of temporally situated claims.”
This single sentence manages to capture both what I consider the strongest and weakest elements of the book’s argument. Personally I would not set these two dynamics against each other. I would state, to the contrary, that it is inflation and deflation of specific forms of value that drive extraction and appropriation in the 21st century.
People doing and making things is still the basis of everything we consider valuable. The asset economy, like finance, has not supplanted real wealth. What it does is reorder cash distributions across different populations.
Further, some confusion arises from the way that the authors downplay the real economy and labour. People doing and making things is still the basis of everything we consider valuable. The asset economy, like finance, has not supplanted real wealth. What it does is reorder cash distributions across different populations.
Organizing against the K-shaped recovery
Recently, housing has grown as a novel site for working class struggles—above and beyond traditional sites like factories or other workplaces. Since the pandemic, we have seen the building of tenants’ unions and neighbourhood groups organizing against evictions and rent increases. These groups themselves explicitly identify housing as a target of working class organizing. This is partly because the precarious, gig and service economies make workplace organizing more challenging versus, say, organizing a centralized factory, but also because rents and housing costs have become a main point of extraction of working people’s wealth. It is a major point of 21st century exploitation.
This is a testament to the authors’ claim that neoliberalism has reordered traditional class relations. In the neighbourhood where I live, for example, many of the buildings where organizing is taking place are owned by asset management companies. This is not incidental, and it is part of why COVID-19 has been a crisis for some and a boon for others.
It may be worthwhile at this juncture to reiterate that a K-shaped recovery is no recovery at all. The image simply highlights the widening gulf of inequality between people who own assets and those who do not. We could think of the present-day wave of organizing around housing and rent as being a direct challenge to the inequality being wrought by asset price inflation.
A K-shaped recovery is no recovery at all. The image simply highlights the widening gulf of inequality between people who own assets and those who do not.
This transformation in class identity warrants greater consideration. At the same time, we must be cautious not to overstate this conversion. It’s true that there is significant overlap between people who own assets and own businesses where people work. On the other hand, many non-asset owning people are also low-paid workers. While asset prices have reorganised monetary value and who controls it, the work done by people is still the backbone of our collective wealth.
This book offers an important and timely analytical lens by which we can better theorize the growth of contemporary inequality and exploitation. There is a good deal more work to be done. I think the answer lies not in setting asset price inflation against a labour theory of value and exploitation, but in exploring how these dynamics intersect and work together, which will give us, amongst other things, a deeper understanding of why housing has become so central to 21st century working class struggle.
Neal Rockwell is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. He is currently completing a masters’ degree in Documentary Media at Ryerson University where he is exploring the effects of financialization on rental housing, as well researching the use of documentary power in the economy and the law, with the goal of strengthening documentary practice as a form of radical truth-telling.
Our planet is dying, and conservation as we know it isn’t helping. In fact, it’s making things worse. Long imagined as a bulwark against ecological destruction, players in the mainstream conservation movement—think big NGOs like The Nature Conservancy and their corporate partners—have actually been complicit in that destruction by propping up a fundamentally unsustainable capitalist system and the nature-culture dichotomy it’s built upon.
According to Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, sociology professors at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, conservation has long been due for a wholesale update—and today, it’s getting not just one but two: “new conservation” and “neoprotectionism.” But in their tightly-argued book, The Conservation Revolution (Verso, February 2020) Büscher and Fletcher make the case that both of these emerging, radical movements contain “untenable contradictions” and that neither can save the planet or humanity from catastrophe. In their place, they propose a new conservation framework of their own, one that complements the variety of ongoing “hope movements” imagining ecologically-sound and democratic alternatives to capitalism.
In the course of just over 200 pages, Büscher and Fletcher build up to this modest proposal swiftly yet methodically, combining history and theory to contextualize and, ultimately, critique their colleagues in the so-called “Anthropocene conservation debate” in a way that is both rigorous and accessible. While their own “convivial conservation” framework, by their own admission, needs further development, it is nonetheless an important addition to revolutionary thought in political ecology.
Their analysis begins with a critical but frequently overlooked fact: Conservation has been linked to capitalism from the very beginning. In 17th and 18th century Britain, they explain, elites “conserved” collectively-used lands by forcing rural people off them. That expulsion conveniently created a labor force for the rapidly industrializing economy. Ever since, capitalism and conservation have shared much of the same ideological DNA. Take the nature-culture dichotomy—the idea that nature is somehow external to humans. Capitalists have long used that idea to justify treating nature as an object to be manipulated in the pursuit of endless economic growth. Conservation organizations, meanwhile, have spread the same notion as they wall off humans from areas artificially transformed into “untouched” wilderness.
And while conservation has long aided and abetted capitalism—through ecotourism, for example—conservation can now be said to have fully integrated into the machine. By putting a price on nature through market-based instruments such as payments for environmental services, organizations like the Natural Capital Coalition see conservation itself as a force for growing the economy.
Like those mainstream conservationists, many of the contemporary thinkers Büscher and Fletcher deem “new conservationists” have no trouble with capitalism. But they depart with their mainstream counterparts in one significant way: They don’t aim to separate nature from humans. Instead, thinkers like science journalist Emma Marris see the planet as a “rambunctious garden,” one that humans must fully inhabit with the rest of nature and manage through sustainable economic activity. As environmental scientist Peter Kareiva puts it: “Instead of scolding capitalism, conservationists should partner with corporations in a science-based effort to integrate the value of nature’s benefits into their operations and cultures.” While Büscher and Fletcher see the movement’s rejection of the nature-culture dichotomy and focus on poverty alleviation as positive steps, they argue convincingly that the new conservationist alignment with—or, in some cases, ambivalence toward—capitalism undermines its goal of ecological and social harmony. Capitalism, they say, creates poverty, and its rapacious appetite for growth simply cannot last on a finite planet.
Many neoprotectionists, Büscher and Fletcher argue, understand that essential fact, which is why their brand of conservation is at least nominally anti-capitalist. But unlike new conservationists, who reject the nature-culture dichotomy, neoprotectionists double down on it, campaigning for huge swaths of the globe to be made off limits to human beings. Perhaps the most well-known neoprotectionist—and a notable exception to the movement’s generally anti-capitalist stance— is the biologist E.O. Wilson, who calls for fencing off half the planet to “safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, including ourselves.” Putting hard boundaries between humans and nature, Büscher and Fletcher note, has, in fact, “saved important tracts of nature from previous waves of capitalist development,” but it has also routinely failed in the past due to corruption and weak enforcement. Enacting a similar scheme on an even grander scale, they argue, would not just require unprecedented militarization, but also likely plunge billions into poverty—making it immediately “socially, politically and culturally” illegitimate.
So what does a feasible, equitable, and sustainable conservation look like? According to Büscher and Fletcher, it should combine the best elements of the two radical conservation movements by rejecting both capitalism and the nature-culture dichotomy. Their proposed “convivial conservation” promotes a dialectical relationship between humans and non-humans while working in “conjunction, connection, and spirit with the many proposed alternatives” to capitalism, including ecosocialism and doughnut economics. Under such a system,for instance, natural areas would be “promoted” for “long-lasting, engaging and open-ended” human use rather than protected from humans altogether. It would also feature a new form of community-based conservation, which would repudiate neoliberal market mechanisms and instead prioritize democratic decision-making, social justice, and the needs of non-human nature. Büscher and Fletcher float a host of other ideas, including a “conservation basic income” and reparations, as potential components of convivial conservation.
What Büscher and Fletcher are proposing is a revolutionary upheaval of the status quo, but they are by no means polemicists. At times, “The Conservation Revolution” is practically genteel. After unequivocally rejecting mainstream conservation as “part of the very problem it addresses,” for example, the authors are quick to dismiss the idea that “there is nothing good in mainstream conservation or that all people working on and in mainstream conservation are somehow ‘bad.’” They approach their differences with those in the conservationist community , meanwhile, knowing that their colleagues are generally “imbued with a great sense of crisis and responsibility” and live a “tense and pressurized” existence. That may be true, but at a time when ecosystems face imminent collapse and humanity is staring down the barrel of a gun, such a tone can come across as oddly unhurried.
Convivial conservation is, the authors admit, “an exercise with many loose ends,” and indeed the “nascent” proposal only takes up about a quarter of an already slim book. At times, the program can seem not merely unfinished, but contradictory. This is perhaps most obvious in the authors’ list of “concrete actions” for achieving convivial conservation, which bend toward the technocratic. Why, for instance, bother proposing “convivial conservation departments” at conservation NGOs, when, as the authors themselves assert, many of those NGOs continue to work hand-in-hand with corporations? And if a sane conservation must be, first and foremost, rooted in overthrowing capitalism, why look to “new blockchain technologies” and “grants from international donors and individual patrons” to fund the movement?
Convivial conservation may not be a silver bullet, and The Conservation Revolution may not be the last book one needs to read to help imagine a life-sustaining future. But if we’re lucky, the world to come will look more like the one Büscher and Fletcher describe than not.
Jordan G. Teicher is a New York-based writer and editor. He tweets at @teicherj
Who can ignore that the Olympians of the new bourgeois aristocracy no longer inhabit. They go from grand hotel to grand hotel, or from castle to castle, commanding a fleet or a country from a yacht. They are everywhere and nowhere. That is how they fascinate people immersed into everyday life. They transcend everyday life, possess nature and leave it up to the cops to contrive culture.
—Henri Lefebvre, “The Right to the City,” 1968
by Sasha Plotnikova
I first started hating the Olympics as a student in Montreal, a city filled with the carcasses of stadiums, pavilions, and decaying detritus of mega-events held there in the 60s and 70s. The year before I moved there marked the 30th anniversary of the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics, as well as the year that the City finally repaid the $1.5 billion (CAD) of debt they were left with after the Games.
For cities hosting the Olympics, debt is a matter of course, and the legacy of the Games is palpable: entire neighborhoods are ripped from the urban fabric so that hotels, empty stadiums, and Olympic villages may sit in their place. The social, cultural, and financial weight of these white elephants is shouldered by long-term residents. Two weeks of fame for starry-eyed local politicians and Olympic boosters amount to a pressure-cooker of exploitation and state violence for those whose lives, labour, and culture make city life possible.
But a counterpart to this history of destruction is a lineage of struggle, survival, and solidarity. While the fight against the Olympics has historically taken place at an immediate, local scale, today’s anti-Olympics organizing is beginning to coalesce into an internationalist movement for the right to urban self-determination.
Bigger than the Olympics
In Los Angeles, a group of organizers working together under the banner of NOlympics LA are fighting for the cancelation of the 2028 LA Olympics and the abolition of all future Games. And that’s only their short-term goal.
As an active member of the LA Tenants Union (a supporting partner of NOlympics) and a hater of the Olympics myself, I’ve observed first-hand the group’s constant churn of actions, teach-ins, and community canvasses since their founding in 2017. But the larger significance of groups like NOlympics can be hard to see up close, and is often obscured by the fervour of organizing around immediate crises at the local scale. As I explore later, the NOlympics activists have developed an arsenal of popular education tactics that create a gateway to local organizing. Boykoff’s snappy yet poetic prose captures their spirit and teases out the long-term promise of mounting a campaign against specific, local issues. Ultimately, the book’s greatest contributions are the lessons it offers on the relationship between international solidarity and local action.
Himself a former Olympic soccer player, Boykoff has spent the past decade building critical analysis about the Games. This shows: the text weaves seamlessly in between interviews with the activists and the lessons that inform their politics. To underline the deep socioeconomic inequalities facing Angelenos, the book throws into stark relief the disparity between the priorities of the oligarchs behind the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the demands of the communities that are displaced and criminalized by the Olympics.
The book is written in four parts, moving from the history of the Games and the destruction they bring; to the origins of NOlympics and the significance of the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA); to the way their local strategies fit into an internationalist movement; and finally to some conclusions for what is to be done about the Olympics.
Throughout, Boykoff situates their organizing within the long-time work of adjacent grassroots organizations in LA and within the praxis of past and present social movements globally. Boykoff’s account of the NOlympians’ trip to Tokyo demonstrates that it’s only through building international connections that the activists are able to connect the local to the global.
Seizing the means of the production of urban space
To understand why the Olympics are bad for LA, you have to understand why capitalism is bad for cities. As David Harvey explains in his book Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, urbanization — the visible arm of endless economic growth — was never anything other than a project of power. Cities develop as economic hubs, where what looks like an abundance of financial opportunities to politicians and investors, signals an ever-worsening quality of life for poor and middle-class residents. Each time the economy sees a boom, poor communities see an intensification of urban stress. As neoliberalism has dug in its heels over the past few decades, the gap between the rich and the poor has become most pronounced in cities.
Perhaps more than any other city, Los Angeles embodies the economic order that has come to define what it means for a place to be urban. The process of urban growth goes in lockstep with the growing burden of rent; the planned obliteration of public housing; the demise of labour unions; the stagnant wages; the proliferation of ever-new forms of segregation; and booms in the most precarious and informal branches of the economy. The lived experiences of millions of Angelenos are proof that the very machinations that spur economic expansion and urban development are the ones that make it increasingly impossible to live in cities.
Land speculators and real estate developers have been particularly pervasive throughout the city’s history. When they’re not at the helm of the city’s economy, they’re in the ears and pockets of politicians, laundering their projects through green-washing and transit-oriented gentrification policies.
The history of urban uprisings in LA has kept pace with this history of injustice. The city’s growth has been enabled by its entrenched culture of white supremacy, which has incensed urban movements from the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots; to the Watts Rebellion in 1965; the 1966 high school boycotts; the Chicano Moratorium in the 70s; the 1992 uprisings in the wake of the brutal police beating of Rodney King; and today’s Black-led demonstrations against police violence.The economic crisis faced by low-income residents is growing steadily, and with it, more and more people are starting to organize to take back the cities they’ve built and made their lives in. Whether that fight coalesces in an alliance against the Olympics or manifests in the daily work of tenant organizing, it’s a fight for the right to the city.
The movement for the right to the city was first given its name by Henri Lefebvre, on the 100th anniversary of the publication of Capital and on the eve of the urban social movements of May 1968. Lefebvre’s writing presaged what would take place in the last decades of the 20th century: the global rise of urbanization and the concentration of capital in the world’s cities. Since his time, urban centers like LA have increasingly become the places where the effects of a profit-driven housing system are most deeply felt: urban planning policies are written with the intention of displacing the poor and replacing them with higher-income, whiter residents — all so that the economy can continue to grow and attract ever-wealthier tourists, investors, and residents to the city. This process has irreversibly changed the look, feel, and spirit of cities to embody the sterile, generic luxury that caters to the global elite.
With this dark horizon in sight, Lefebvre wrote about the urgent need to fight for an urban life that centers poor communities, promotes a sense of belonging, and imbues the everyday with meaning and novelty—he called this the right to the city.
One of the most important takeaways of Henri Lefebvre’s “Right to the City” is the proposition that already in 1968, Marxism’s focus on the worker as the agent of social change no longer held the same ground as it did in the 19th century. In response, Lefebvre suggested that the task at hand is to seize the means of the production of space, updating the Marxist focus on seizing the means of industrial production. To claim their right to the city, tenants, street vendors, immigrants, service workers, artists, and those who care about and enliven public space would take back what they’ve created and nourished.
Human rights, as they’re understood by most, are underwritten by the notion of private property, and this makes the proposition that the city, or even housing, is a human right, for instance, a difficult pitch. The right to the city complicates that understanding: it’s not just about a right to resources— it’s about a collective right to self-determination through the built environment and the urban social realm.
For Lefebvre, the right to the city was the assertion of the right of low-/no-income residents to shape the city so that it might both fulfill their basic needs and better reflect their culture and desires. Without this right, anyone who isn’t identified as part of the white middle and upper class is targeted by social cleansing campaigns through evictions, rent gouging, policing, and surveillance. The right to the city is a fight for safe, affordable, and decent housing; for public amenities; for bountiful, accessible, unsurveilled and unrestricted use of public space; and ultimately, for avenues towards community control over the built environment.
A renewed interest in what Lefebvre articulated in 1968 has taken two paths. While it’s been embodied in the daily struggles of autonomous grassroots movements; it has also been opportunistically adopted by nonprofits as a brand. The nonprofit approach amounts to asking for a seat at the table by promoting community engagement and public meetings that in theory, offer an avenue for poor people to participate in urban planning. But even when long-time residents of gentrifying communities are invited to conversations between developers and city agencies, their presence is tokenized and their participation is superficial by design.
A grassroots right-to-the-city approach like that of NOlympics, on the other hand, offers an avenue for organizing against the abstract forces of neoliberalism by making clear demands for material changes that can improve the lives of poor people.
For an in-depth look at the renewed relevance of the right to the city in today’s anticapitalist movements, we can turn to David Harvey. He suggests that a primary obstacle to finding “our version of the [Paris] Commune,” might be the Left’s failure to collectively trace the connections between seemingly separate struggles, within our towns and cities and around the world. For him, it’s only through an internationalist movement that understands racial, environmental, economic, and spatial justice as facets of the same struggle, that we can begin to reclaim our cities. The promise of the global anti-Olympics movement is just that: an international, intersectional coalition rooted in local struggles for cities where the well-being of residents holds more weight than a two-week mega-event for the ultra-rich.
The long road to Olympic abolition
The Olympics produce a state of exception that allows municipal politicians around the world to usher in the version of the city they want but can’t get through a democratic process. Local police forces take advantage of this moment to acquire otherwise-unattainable funding, weapons, and legal protections. Host cities bend over backwards to accommodate a two-week mega-event, permanently altering their urban fabric and pricing out longtime residents. In Boykoff’s words, “It’s not just that poor people are not given a seat at the Olympic table — it’s that they’re the meal.” The same pattern plays out again and again, from Rio, to Sochi, Beijing, and LA. In the years leading up to the return of the Olympics to Los Angeles in 2028, we can expect nothing less than the exacerbation of the very demonstrations of white supremacy and aspirations for cosmopolitanism that have pushed communities of colour out of the neighbourhoods they’ve called home for generations. Already, we’re seeing the expansion of the LAPD; more transit-oriented displacement; hotel development; and rising rents.The 2028 Olympics represent the most recent incarnation of racist and anti-poor planning, and their arrival fans the flames of LA’s urban crises.
In 2017, NOlympics was born in the Housing and Homelessness committee of DSA’s Los Angeles chapter, which was unique in that it actively pursued coalitions with existing organizations led by long-term residents organizing with tenants and unhoused communities. This origin story is an important piece of the book, and Boykoff’s description of NOlympics’ relationship to DSA-LA further illustrates NOlympics’ commitment to long-time local struggles and international coalition-building. Since their founding, NOlympics has gained a relative autonomy from DSA, and gathered together a coalition of over 30 local grassroots organizations.
The day-to-day organizing of NOlympics LA is handled by a handful of dedicated, core activists, many of whom have been with the group since the beginning. But much of their base draws from the members of their coalition partners, which themselves benefit from having a shared forum for building solidarity, and a long-term goal to mobilize against. By strengthening those alliances, the group has planted roots in LA’s ongoing and wide-ranging struggles, from racial justice, to anti-imperialism, housing justice, and many more.
In effect, the group has embedded itself into grassroots organizations outside of DSA, learning from them, supporting them, and funneling new DSA members into these movements—responding to a common critique that DSA lacks those kinds of connections. As I’ve seen for myself, NOlympics organizers consistently show up to support protests at the homes of slumlords organized by the LA Tenants Union. They help to monitor encampment sweeps and empower unhoused residents with Streetwatch LA (another DSA-LA working group with relative autonomy), and turn up for direct actions organized by Black Lives Matter against the city’s record-high rate of police murder.
Similarly, NOlympics maintains a level of porosity and agility that welcomes new members on a regular basis and draws activists from different backgrounds to partake in their actions, which largely revolve around tactics of popular education: canvassing, polling, and teach-ins. By pulling together the already-existing expertise and analysis of local organizations, and setting out on a decade-long mission, NOlympics stands a chance of winning the cancelation of the LA2028 Games. More importantly, they’re ensuring that the city’s activist groups have a constant platform where they can come together, and that new members of DSA have an avenue for involvement in ongoing anticapitalist work in the city. Yet, for NOlympics, coalition-building is not just a tactic for mounting a localized intersectional critique of the effect of the Games on LA. It is also a project of international solidarity to end the Games for good: “No Olympics Anywhere.” The activists recognize that without lasting solidarity between host cities, all the work done in each host city is lost when the IOC moves on to its next victim. In response to the IOC’s globetrotting caravan of destruction, anti-Olympics activists around the world are beginning to strategically organize on a transnational scale. Fostering this coalition of global anti-Olympics groups has become a central initiative of NOlympics, responding to another shortfall of DSA, which is its lack of an anti-imperialist analysis.
Last summer, Boykoff traveled to Tokyo with NOlympics for the first major international anti-Olympics summit, where the activists from different cities around the world convened and marched with the local anti-Olympics organizers of HanGorin No Kai ahead of the Tokyo 2020 (now 2021) Summer Games. There, NOlympics organizers shared the particular ways that transnational capital manifests in LA. Boykoff, when narrating this trip, also observes the hurdles to this scale of organizing: if language barriers weren’t enough, different cultures of organizing can make collaboration difficult. But there were important lessons learned as well. Back in LA, the Nolympics organizers constantly remind local activists that their enemy is not just the LA City Council, but a transnational regime of neoliberalism.
As David Harvey notes, “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.” NOlympics’ answer to this is building a coalition that unites antiracist, anticapitalist, anticarceral, and anti-displacement organizers in the fight for their right to continue to live in and to shape the city — from LA to Tokyo and beyond. It offers lessons about the importance of local, intersectional solidarity to activists abroad; and informs the work of local activists with an internationalist analysis. NOlympians depicts a coalition of organizations that prefigures a version of Los Angeles where none of us are free until all of us are free; where the city’s racist history is top of mind as we steer the ship towards racial justice; and where solidarity plays out in everyday acts of mutual aid.
A gateway to organizing
Like DSA, NOlympics takes an inside-outside approach, agitating politicians in the city hall chambers while building power by organizing with their coalition partners. However, NOlympics’ unabashedly abolitionist mandate sets it apart from what Boykoff identifies as the “socialism by evolution not revolution” mandate embraced by much of DSA — instead of reform, they want an obliteration of the capitalist mega-event. Their positioning creates a bridge for new members of DSA to get involved with community organizing beyond electoralism. One way NOlympics has done this has been by perfecting the art of transfiguring cynical criticism into demands for positive change. They do this by exposing the failures of local government through gripping online satire, and pairing it with rambunctious, theatrical direct actions. Boykoff describes the ways in which NOlympics responds to the specific cruelties and political failures of contemporary Los Angeles. LA’s municipal government puts much of the city’s political power in the hands of the city council, while, as the NOlympians relentlessly point out, Mayor Eric Garcetti is often nowhere to be found. Before devoting much of his time in office in 2018 to courting a long-shot presidential bid, he signed the host-city contract for the 2028 Olympics without any input from the public—a clear tell that the 2028 Games were never intended to benefit the average resident of LA, but that they’re meant to serve the private interests of hotel developers, real estate speculators and international corporations that thrive on the tourist class.
Garcetti and LA City Council have consistently upheld racist and anti-poor policies. White supremacy is deeply ingrained in the city’s planning history, and wealthy, white residents look to the city council for leadership. The summer of 2019 saw an uptick in anti-homeless white vigilante violence after the city council reinstated a ban on vehicle dwelling. Backed by the most murderous police force in the nation, politicians and vigilantes alike are already on a campaign to sanitize and pacify neighborhoods across Los Angeles. The decaying local media landscape only makes matters worse, with Pulitzer-prize nominated journalists writing poverty porn, and the chairperson of the 2028 Olympic bid holding a major stake in one of the few local outlets.
Boykoff describes NOlympics as a “perpetual praxis machine,” and their organizing takes many forms, ranging from performatively canceling the Olympics on the steps of LA’s City Hall; to holding auditions for actors to fill Garcetti’s shoes in his frequent absence; to doing outreach in public spaces and areas most impacted by hotel development ahead of the Olympics. Threading together all of these tactics is the activists’ trademark humour, which makes their cutting political criticism more approachable. While people may not know exactly how to critique something as abstract as global capital, NOlympics shows them how and empowers them to do so. Their propaganda pairs criticism of the profit-driven political economy with people-centered alternatives, all in plain language grounded in the specific issues facing Angelenos.
Popular education is at the root of their approach to organizing, and as Boykoff observes, their regular meetings have become more about training people to organize, and less about report-backs and updates. Their organizing mandate seems to be not base-building, but creating an environment for organizers to grow and learn from one another, and connecting new DSA members with existing organizations working on specific issues in Los Angeles.
No Olympics are Good Olympics
If you ask any of the NOlympics LA organizers whether the Olympics could be reformed to better serve local communities, they would be quick to say that no Games are good Games. They would tell you that what powers the Olympic machine is the IOC’s determination to trample on poor communities in cities across the world, just to turn a profit, get back in their private jets, and do it all over again somewhere else.
Yet, after chronicling the work of these organizers, and explicitly reiterating their abolitionist platform, Boykoff lays out some suggestions for Olympic reform. For one, he suggests an independent panel to review bids, and proposes higher environmental oversight. He imagines an Olympic machine turned on its head, so that funds that circulate up through the Games into the hands of oligarchs may be redirected into marginalized communities instead. He also proposes that the IOC follow the lead of FIFA, making votes for the Games public.
It’s perplexing that after following the NOlympics organizers’ analysis so closely to their unapologetic, no-compromise demands for the eradication of the Olympic Games, Boykoff suggests reform. He implies that the IOC would be open to positive change; and furthermore that these reforms would not later be corrupted. It’s difficult, knowing what we’ve learned from his book, to imagine that a reorganized IOC would stage anything that truly benefits the no- and low-income communities of host cities. Boykoff’s propositions prompt an important question for the anti-Olympics movement and for the fight for the right to the city: How far can reform really go?
The NOlympians have rejected the premise of this question altogether. NOlympics is about ending much more than the Olympics, and spending energy on fighting for reforms to a system premised on the disenfranchisement of communities of colour and the banishment of the poor, might be something better left to the nonprofits. Instead, NOlympics has highlighted moments in sporting history when athletes got together to organize ethical, people-first events. For example, their videoA Brief History of Swolecialism gives an overview of the Workers’ Sports Movement. The 1932 International Workers’ Olympiad famously drew more visitors and competitors than the concurrent 1932 LA Olympics. That legacy lives on today in CSIT (Confédération Sportive Internationale Travailliste et Amateur, or International Workers and Amateurs in Sports Confederation), which offers an alternative to the IOC that goes unmentioned in NOlympians. Boykoff writes about these alternatives elsewhere, but misses an opportunity to connect the dots between NOlympics LA’s fight to abolish the Games and their enthusiasm for the potential of a democratic sports culture led by poor people.
Ultimately, the more important question at the end of this book remains unasked: what kind of city would it take to put people before profit, and to democratize sporting culture? What kind of city would it take to invest in and preserve bountiful public recreation space, provide clean water to swim in, and safe streets where kids can play — all without displacing long-time residents? It’s the kind of city that the partners of the NOlympics LA coalition are already fighting for and beginning to enact.
What the NOlympians are doing, and what Boykoff chronicles so well, is building a coalition of organizations in LA that are collectively fighting for their right — the right of regular people — to the city. In a global city like LA, this fight is up against the influence of transnational real estate investment, the tourism industry, and sportswashing. Though it’s difficult to measure the progress they’ve made towards getting the 2028 Games canceled, they’ve become a vital voice of dissent in our city hall chambers; a constant well of research and analysis while local media sleeps at the wheel; and an important common ground for groups fighting for environmental justice, tenants rights, Black liberation, and demilitarization. Boykoff illustrates not only the contemporary relevance of a right-to-the-city campaign; but the importance of far-reaching, collaborative, and coalition-based organizing that pairs single-issue struggles to general ones and local fights to the global fight against capitalism. The NOlympians are flipping the script, taking what engineer William Mulholland once said to the mayor at the opening of the Los Angeles aqueduct, and broadcasting it to the city instead: “There it is! Take it!”
All photos courtesy of NOlympics LA.
Sasha Plotnikova is a writer and design critic living in Los Angeles. She organizes with the LA Tenants Union and has taught architecture at Cal Poly Pomona. She tweets at @sashaplot_.
In The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can, Stan Cox has a message for all who were counting on the Green New Deal to help save us from ecological and economic collapse: this legislation will not go far enough. Cox’s book comes at a sobering time, when the only two U.S. presidential candidates he mentions as being in favor of the Green New Deal—Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—have fallen behind a ‘more electable’ candidate who has not expressed such enthusiastic support for GND policies. In light of such developments, and in light of the global health crisis now facing the world, a manuscript devoted to many of the GND’s shortcomings might seem untimely. Yet Cox provides important insights into how our intersecting crises—ecological, economic, and epidemiological—could lead to a positive restructuring of the economy, if we can push such legislation to meet them. To do so, Cox argues, requires expanding the GND’s restorative approach to environmental justice, a willingness to reinvent the economy at a scale not seen since World War II, and the prioritizing of people and the planet above economic growth.
There are a few assumptions of the Green New Deal with which Cox takes issue, given how far we have advanced on the climate clock. These include the legislation’s vision to build up ‘green’ energy capacity and its promise to maintain and even accelerate economic growth. First, Cox addresses the common assumption that clean energy will push out old, dirty energy, by showing that there is so far no evidence to support that this will happen. As Cox shows from previous cap-and-trade policies, new energy sources are more likely to add to the existing energy supply than replace it. So far, the attempt to phase out fossil fuel energy with solar and wind power has only served to supplement the energy market and, sometimes, even enhance the production and trade of fossil fuels. Therefore, the parts of the GND which promise to re-grow the economy by replacing fossil fuels with renewable or clean energy sources are simply not realistic. To reach the goal of clean energy by 2030 through solar and wind power, we would have to build infrastructure for such industries ‘at thirty-three times the highest rate of buildup ever achieved to date’ and at scale which would infringe upon land and water which we would do better to conserve.
Cox urges us to accept that while we must phase out fossil fuels now with a strong cap on fossil fuel production, we must also accept that such a rapid phasing out of fossil fuels will shrink GDP.
Instead, Cox urges us to accept that while we must phase out fossil fuels now with a strong cap on fossil fuel production, we must also accept that such a rapid phasing out of fossil fuels will shrink GDP. This insight brings some of the Green New Deal’s aims in conflict with one another. In the legislation’s own language, the GND proposes to bring ‘unprecedented levels of prosperity’ and a new era of ‘domestic manufacturing in the United States,’ while also ‘restoring and protecting threatened, endangered, and fragile ecosystems.’ Yet as Cox points out, land and soil restoration alone will take a massive amount of work and coordination. The GND would then have to choose between such restoration and the massive building of new industries. Cox argues that the choice should be clear for those who truly know what is at stake. Because the GND also aims to ‘promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth’ Cox argues that it cannot do so while also drastically reducing emissions and growing a new energy market.
What’s new is also old
To help us understand how we might avoid some of these assumptions, Cox points to a few lessons learned from the old New Deal. What is not new about the Green New Deal, for example, is its ambitious goal to take on the task of essentially planning the entire economy as a necessary response to economic and ecological crisis. Although it may seem unthinkable after decades of neoliberalism, structural adjustment, and austerity, Cox reminds us that Roosevelt himself had introduced the New Deal by publicly acknowledging that ‘free market policies and resource extraction’ had created a fiscal and ecological emergency that required an entirely new — and entirely planned—economy (3). The government’s ability to take the reins from the free market was the first step in the New Deal’s success. The second, and more essential step, was that a national labor movement held this project accountable to workers. This labor pressure, which resulted in the passing of the National Labor Relations Act, helped ensure that the projects and stimulus packages meant to plan both production and consumption specifically addressed the rights struggles of working people along with the conservation and maintenance of the environment.
Yet what made the New Deal unsuccessful was its failure to implement its goals across racial lines. As Cox acknowledges, rather than helping Black workers in the South, for example, the New Deal cemented institutional racism by deferring to locally prevailing wages for occupations dominated by Black workers. Further, the Social Security Act of 1935 did not cover farm laborers nor domestic workers, which employed two-thirds of the Black population, and the New Deal’s housing policies perpetuated residential segregation. In order to learn from this history, Cox points us to the successful campaign of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which recruited thousands to stage a successful strike that demanded higher wages for Black and white farmworkers across northeast Arkansas. The goal of this organization was both a protest movement and a labor union: agitation and publicity, along with strikes and collective bargaining, aimed to put pressure on the New Deal and present radical alternatives to its policy. Similarly, no matter how progressive the Green New Deal’s goals, Cox argues that it must also face relentless pressure from unions, social movements, activists, and groups like Indigenous Climate Action, Sunrise Movement, Keep it in the Ground, and Fridays For Future, in solidarity with land and water protectors who are already struggling to defend some of the world’s largest carbon sinks.
The GND does take some of the New Deal’s key mistakes into account, in arguing for the importance of protecting First Nations and marginalized communities. Yet more pressure will be required to recognize the hard truth that we have already overshot our shared limit of fossil fuel production and consumption, and that even the clean energy of new public infrastructure would rely upon dangerous extractive practices that threaten marginalized communities and the sovereignty of indigenous lands. Climate activists, scholars, and the public must therefore ask themselves: can the GND really ensure a just energy transition by building a roaring new ‘green’ economy and mining raw materials like cobalt, cooper, lithium from around the world, which, as Cox points out, are both notoriously associated with human rights abuses and harmful extraction (68)? What the optimism of the GND does not appear to be taking into account is that the mining of such materials—even those meant to produce ‘clean’ or ‘renewable’ energy—is going to remain a dirty business.
We must be willing to cut the wasteful parts of this economy in the same way that the War Productions Board of the 1940s cut, simplified, and restructured the U.S. economy of the 1940s.
Further, what the GND seems to have not learned from the history of the New Deal is that a stimulus package by itself will not go far enough. In the case of the New Deal, as Cox points out, it was ultimately not the massive stimulus but the United States’ transition into a war economy that addressed both unemployment and overproduction. This is also why the United States, to this day, relies upon its military to help expand a GDP that is fundamentally linked to high carbon emissions. While the fact that the U.S. military is a bigger polluter than most countries is well known, what is less known, as Cox asserts, is that we must be willing to cut the wasteful parts of this economy in the same way that the War Productions Board of the 1940s cut, simplified, and restructured the U.S. economy of the 1940s.
A rationing economy
In what has become a rather prescient observation, given the current state of emergency brought on by the spread of COVID-19, Cox reminds us that it was not the New Deal, but the ‘emergency’ of World War II which allowed the U.S. to entirely restructure its system of production and consumption. In 1936, when the Roosevelt administration began easing off stimulus support, unemployment leapt back up to 19% and remained above fourteen percent until the war effort redirected its production to war-related materials and projects. Having spent $62 billion on stimulating the economy over the last eight years, Congress then spent $321 billion over the next five years in its transitioning to a war economy. Cox points out that while this new form of spending worked in restructuring production and consumption, many forget the sacrifices that were made to ensure a successful transition. A key element often left out, for example, is the War Production Board’s mandatory clampdown on prices as well as its rationing efforts, which aimed to ensure adequate food, shelter, clothing, and other basic necessities for the entire population. To this end, the War Production Board shrank, standardized, and simplified the economy in order to reduce civilian rail travel, prohibit the shipping of retail packages, and reduce the number and varieties of most commercial products.
Here Cox lingers on the point of the War Production Board’s tight rationing of goods, which included both food and fossil fuels. This is because, for Cox, proper rationing will be fundamental to a just energy transition. In making connections between the WPB’s tight regulation of the economy and what he argues should be a similar response to the emergency of ecological collapse, Cox chronicles how households were issued a monthly set of stamps for meats, cheeses, butter, sugar, fuel oil, kerosene, gasoline, tires, cars, bicycles, stoves, typewriters, shoes, coffee, canned fish and milk, fats, and other processed goods. Drivers began carpooling to work and families across the country planted 22 million ‘victory gardens’ to supplement the rationing system. Rather than being a hardship, Cox argues, rationing improved nutrition across economic classes and was met with overwhelming public approval. Even when ‘rationing was at its zenith,’ as Cox reports, approval outweighed disapproval by two to one, because civilians believed rationing was necessary to eliminate food shortages and conserve important raw materials. Cox insists that the same mindset must accompany the Green New Deal, which would entail a concerted effort on the part of national, state, and local legislation to ration electricity with the same zeal that this country has historically reserved for wartime.
Rations but not population control
Rationing off of overblown production and consumption of fossil fuels will not be as difficult for some as for others. Eighty percent of the population, as Cox reminds us, does not fly. Yet for all of Cox’s attention to detail in how to redistribute equitable energy consumption, there is one part of his enthusiasm for rationing that might give us pause, however. At one point, Cox suggests that one possible rationing formula might be ‘equal numbers of credits per adult for each energy source, with an additional half-credit for up to two children per household’ (103). Readers who have been following eagerly along may experience some dismay here. Why only up to two children, why only a half-credit per child, and what about children with special needs, for example, who might require a certain amount of technology? At this point in the book, it would have been helpful for Cox to engage with critiques of Malthusian population control, which is a well-known slippery slope in seeing the violence of climate catastrophe—and even epidemics—as helping to lower carbon footprint by lowering population. Recent takes about the spread of COVID-19 being a kind of ‘vaccine’ for humanity, for example, operate in precisely this Malthusian vein. Such presumptions forget that it is the safest and wealthiest classes who are responsible for the most emissions and even the spread of global disease, and that those least responsible for ecological and epidemiological crises are most vulnerable in their lack of access to healthcare, fresh food, shelter, and a living wage. Cox cites Georgios Kallis and other degrowth scholars who explicitly critique the Malthusian position of overpopulation, but he does not bring up these critiques in his own account.
Despite the above sentence, which enters into Cox’s analysis at the end of a long discussion about solidarity rationing, Cox is committed to reminding readers that the GND aims to stop carbon emissions in ways that will fundamentally uplift the most vulnerable. To do this, he maintains, the GND must be willing to deliberately scale back the economy and completely phase out fossil fuels by 2030, curtail the production and consumption of cars, air travel, and other fossil-fuel related activities, degrow the military and militarized law enforcement, end mass incarceration, and stop giving subsidies to industries that overproduce of civilian and military products. As Cox writes, we need a lower-energy economy with fewer goods, shorter working hours, and a motto of ‘sufficiency for all.’ Standardization and simplification will help ensure equitable distribution of essential resources and cut out the most wasteful parts of the economy.
The details of this kind of scaling back must be negotiated through local and participatory processes.
In thus countering the ‘eco-modernist’ approach of unhampered production in service of green luxury, Cox takes issue with those who do not see the need to deliberately scale back the economy. He argues instead that while many still believe that nuclear power or a battery-operated world will solve our problems, we must take a long, hard look at our ecological limits. If we are serious about meeting climate goals, for example, there can be no ‘high-speed rail’ as promised by Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, because the concrete alone involved in such a project would contribute to an already-overshot cap of emissions. Rather, existing rail lines should be refurbished and extended in scaling back private transportation, while acknowledging that we need less—not more—energy use. The details of this kind of scaling back must be negotiated through local and participatory processes, but they would aim to include more public transportation, well-insulated and high-density housing, solar electric and water heating, and a new system of rationing not unlike that of the 1940s War Production Board. The good news is that the people responsible for the majority of emissions are in a relatively small class of consumers. The bad news is that we have to find a way to convince them to scale back the most.
In highlighting the above fact, Cox points out another common assumption: that simply taxing the 1% will be enough to stimulate the economy and re-build public infrastructure. Here the ambitious policies of both Sanders and Warren are called into question for not going far enough. Instead, Cox argues that the entire upper-middle class of the United States, which has a higher income than 96% of the world, will be adversely impacted by any ‘just transition’ that can equitably phase out fossil fuels. This is why Cox argues that a fair, effective climate policy will necessitate that ‘the 33% of American households with highest incomes will bear the greatest economic burden’ both in having to pay for economic restructuring, and in scaling back their own overblown consumption (109). The consumption of both its billionaire class and upper-middle class—the world’s 4%—must be heavily capped.
Restorative environmental justice
Instead of ‘leading the fight against climate change’ then, as the Green New Deal proposes, it would be more accurate to say that such legislation will begin to take some responsibility for centuries of uneven emissions, where the poorest parts of the world (who are responsible for only 15% of global emissions) feel the harshest and most brutal impacts of tropical storms, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, and global migration. In fully recognizing the need for the U.S. to become accountable to these uneven causes and consequences, Cox acknowledges that there are many things which the Green New Deal gets right, or at least very close to right, in its vision of restorative environmental justice. Yet if the Green New Deal continues to rely upon the dream of a green energy economy to rival that of the fossil fuel industry, Cox warns, it will have to ignore this vision, as well as many of its own mandates to improve land use, preserve soil quality, and protect indigenous lands. Even if the U.S. refrains from further extractive practices on its own land, but continues mining precious metals across the world, it will still fail to enact this vision. Cox therefore suggests that the U.S. take part in a global fair-shares energy allocation that models the Green New Deal’s pro-worker and pro-poor economics, with the aim of globally ‘raising the floor and lowering the ceiling’ to put underdeveloped countries on par with developed ones.
Ultimately, Cox’s message is that, like the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which pushed the New Deal to ensure both workers’ rights and racial justice, the climate movement must stand in solidarity with indigenous climate struggles against market solutions, even and especially those alluded to in the Green New Deal. The good news is that those who are not already a part of the 33% of upper-class consumers will have less to sacrifice, and will likely benefit from the GND’s demands for worker’s rights, universal healthcare, housing, jobs, and universal access to clean air, water, and food. As Cox reminds us, the 40% at the bottom of the economic pyramid have a net worth of negative $22,000, which is why we must, as he says, raise the floor and lower the ceiling. Yet those who turn their noses up to a ‘sufficiency for all’ planned economy—which include, as Cox points out, the ‘fully automated luxury’ green modernists of the Left—must also be brought face-to-face with the reality that we are already approaching, at best, a future of more limited consumption.
In writing this book, Stan Cox could not have anticipated that the spread of COVID-19 may itself present an emergency situation requiring the restructuring and planning of the economy. The recently passed CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act in the U.S., which includes loan forgiveness and emergency funds for economic relief, has attempted to intervene in this emergency for the sake of stabilizing the economy. Cox would likely respond that such drastic intervention must become the new normal, but not for the sake of the market. Rather, he would argue that such an emergency should be an impetus for simplifying, standardizing, and restructuring production and consumption. Cox argues that this is not idealism, but necessity. By 2030 or 2040, if our aims and policies turn out to have been insufficient, as he points out, it will have been too late.
Natalie Suzelis is a Ph.D. candidate in Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. Her research analyzes the environmental and cultural history of capitalist development in early modern literature.
This August, large parts of the Amazon rainforest were set on fire to make way for the exploitation of land for industrial agriculture, causing the loss of over 1300 square miles this year alone.
It should come as no surprise that the destruction of the world’s most vital source of oxygen was incensed in part by the same private equity firm that has waged a global war on the human right to housing. What links these disasters is the fact that our political economy has redefined land as resource and therefore as potential capital: homes become real estate, the forests that replenish the earth’s atmosphere are seen as obstacles to agriculture.
The myopia of this kind of thinking easily infiltrates the design fields, which have largely adopted a pro-market logic over the past century. Architecture and urban design specifically have suffered from lack of interdisciplinarity in practice and navel-gazing in their academic culture, resulting in an approach to today’s ecological and social justice crises that is overwhelmingly hands-off, or milquetoast at best.
A new, new world
The project of imagining what the future looks like is as old as the practice of architecture. Architects are futurists by necessity: we occupy ourselves with projections of the shape of things to come. Often, these ideas surpass what’s possible in the present and live their lives on paper, never finding concrete expression in the real world. This so-called “paper architecture” makes up a stunning amount of what’s been canonized in architecture history books. But whether paper architecture can make a difference in the world outside academia hinges on its ability to challenge the preconditions for architecture. By identifying present shortfalls in our political, economic, social, and ecological systems and projecting the form of possible alternatives, speculative design can imbue the discipline with political agency.
In StudioTEKA’s 2100: A Dystopian Utopia: The City After Climate Change, a Brooklyn-based architecture studio dives deep into a question the building industries have neglected to ask: how much longer can the world’s cities withstand the rapidly increasing frequency of disastrous climate events? And what happens when they no longer can? The writers estimate that 83% of the Amazon would be destroyed by 2100; today’s toll already brings that percentage to a tipping point of 15-17%. 80 years too soon, we realize that the issues addressed in this book are all the more pressing.
It’s a fascinating thought experiment: can we pack up and reassemble this lifestyle in newly temperate climates? StudioTEKA seems to think so, given the proper technocracy.
2100 depicts a world in decay, and sheds light on what a possible post-decay world might look like. StudioTEKA’s proposal stems from the expectation that our politicians will do little, if anything at all, to bridle the destruction of the biosphere over the next 30 years.
It’s a fascinating thought experiment: can we continue to consume resources at our current rate, and be able to pack up and reassemble this lifestyle in newly temperate climates? Will we be able to go back to business as usual after the climate collapse plays out over the next century? StudioTEKA seems to think so, given the proper technocracy.
The master plan in 2100 looks like this: if we can force politicians to take action by 2050, we’ll be able to limit warming temperatures to a 6-7 degree rise by the year 2100. By most measures, even a 3-4 degree rise would be monumental. The Earth’s middle band, which hosts most of the world’s population in 2019, will largely become uninhabitable due to drought, severe storms, rising sea levels, and catastrophic heatwaves. StudioTEKA predicts that 10 billion people will then move to inhabit 39 million square kilometers of newly-developed compact megacities near the Earth’s poles.
To allow for this density, each megacity outsources its energy production and manufacturing to a sister “extraction city” in the middle band. There, renewable energy is harvested, natural resources are processed and both are exported to the corresponding megacity. The plants are staffed by temporary workers that travel to the middle band from the poles. The designers refer to these projections as the “new, new world.”
The servant and the served
Expanding on the architectural trope of the servant and the served, StudioTEKA suggests seven such pairings around the world, with densities 2.5 times that of present-day Manila, today’s densest city. Using methods of visual representation that are customary to architects, the predictions and solutions in 2100 convincingly spin a linear narrative out of the chaos that we’re about to see unfold in real time. Through compelling infographics, the authors script a future characterized by a harmonic relationship between humans and ecology, as a foil to our current pattern of reckless exploitation.
In 2100’s Antarctica, three quarters of Ross Island are maintained as a nature reserve. Agriculture and recreation are housed in crystalline greenhouses on stilts, and artificial glaciers are farmed for water. This water is exported to Ross Island’s sister city Johannesburg and to other cities with water shortages. A rendering of Troll, Antarctica shows a neighbourhood-sized concrete dome housing a mossy sculpture park ringed by a river designed for indoor boating. During the dark polar winters, Troll’s residents travel to Sao Paolo to aid in mass reforestation efforts, sleeping in pods suspended above the urban forest’s understory.
With the historic fabric of Manila projected to be underwater by 2100, the city is rebuilt on a linear plinth elevated above the water. The plinth is designed to harvest of storm energy, which is then loaded into large batteries and exported to Wellington. Wellington’s coast is also flooded, and the communities are moved up to a new megacity distributed amongst the mountaintops and linked by bridges.
As frequent hurricanes render New York uninhabitable, Greenland’s largest city, Nuuk, rises as the capital of global finance. In Nuuk, buildings bury themselves into cliffsides; and in New York the historic fabric is rehabilitated to house the temporary workers that come to work in carbon capture and energy-storage export.
A megastructure weaves through Moscow, stitching together the public space on the ground level with transit and bikeways up above, significantly densifying the city while maintaining open space on the ground level. Its partner city is found in the hostile desert landscapes of Kufra-Adjabiya, where extensive water evaporation infrastructure creates humid zones for agriculture and human habitation.
A top-down approach
StudioTEKA’s approach to designing this new, new world stems from a mix of utilitarianism and a biomorphic design sensibility. Every design move is based on how many functions it can make the architecture perform: building facades can no longer merely separate inside and outside and give buildings a face—they now also grow plants, harvest energy, and capture carbon. Parks not only provide recreation space, but act as carbon sinks, perform soil remediation, and provide a barrier against oceanic storm surges. Like the different organisms that make up an ecosystem, each element of the built world plays a muti-faceted and active role in its environment.
There is no discussion of who will be left behind as millionaires buy up the hot new real estate of the compact megacities; no hint of universal rent control and no plan for the construction of public housing.
Uniting the fourteen sites is a single aesthetic language of twisting, white sinewy forms with parametrically-designed perforations that form megastructures, towers, or domes scaled much larger than the majority of the architecture we’re familiar with today. This design language has its roots in biomimicry—a desire for human-made forms to look like, or even imitate those of nature. Think of Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center Oculus in New York, or Studio Gang’s Aqua Tower in Chicago for built examples of this tendency. The unintended consequence is that the forms proposed in 2100 could not look more unnatural in the historic city fabrics and cultures that they colonize.
Zooming out to the urban plan, we see a top-down approach: in some cases, a new figure is superimposed over an existing street grid, while a series of clip-on developments colonize a historic city fabric in others. The architectural proposals are deliberately gestural and unresolved, acting as placeholders for the kinds of forms that this design ethic could produce. What’s missing is a clue towards the kind of society these places are meant to foster, and the political economy that we would need in order to get there without leaving anyone behind.
Everything is the same, but on acid
Interestingly, 2100 was written during the last years of the Obama presidency and before the proposal of the Green New Deal (GND)— a model for “greening” the US economy that’s being pushed by leftist Democrats. Similarly to what’s depicted in 2100, the GND proposes a shift to renewable energy and the creation of “green” jobs. The dominant narrative amongst its proponents has paradoxically broadcast the GND as a growth-driven vision of a sustainable future. At their worst, both the GND and the world of 2100 enact a kind of common sense on acid; a sensibility held in common in a world dominated by capitalistic thinking. Already, Left critiques of the GND have articulated a GND that challenges the economic framework at the root of the climate crisis. Meanwhile, 2100 suggests that the right cocktail of new technologies, scientific research, and continued economic growth might allow us to keep living just the way we do.
What neither 2100 nor the GND address is the scale of production and natural resource extraction that would be required for a transition to renewable energy at this magnitude. Renewable energy has far-reaching material implications that will require the growth of mining operations across the globe.
The scale of construction proposed in 2100, too, has massive material implications. Given that real estate development is one of the world’s most most carbon-intensive industries, the proposed undertakings speak to our desperation in the midst of the climate catastrophe. In 2100, finding habitable environments takes on more urgency than reconfiguring the scale at which we extract, produce, import, and consume. As a chapter title poignantly asks, “Where in the world can we live?”
Futurism with class bias
The research that informs StudioTEKA’s specific design solutions, technologies, and site selections is remarkable for a design studio. But honing in on the technical makes the political the book’s weak point.
While they note abnormalities in the effects of climate change (like the escalator effect, which will lower sea levels at poles while raising them around the middle band) and even suggest ways to address renewable energy’s intermittency problems (the gaps in energy supply that follow lulls in weather events); StudioTEKA never address what many fear to be an approaching climate apartheid—the poorest left behind in uninhabitable places while the rich flee to new eco-utopian enclaves.
2100 is a world in which we have our cake and eat it too: where we can continue to grow the economy while lowering our energy use. How the current class war plays out in this dystopian utopia seems to be a question these designers won’t approach.
It’s crucial for designers to recognize the ways in which both the climate crisis and—ironically—“green” building solutions most negatively impact working class communities and the developing world. By largely limiting their research to scientific reports and big-picture population data, the designers have missed a huge opportunity. And so, the book reveals its class biases as it rolls out a long, intricately curated and site-specific list of technological and lifestyle-based solutions.
For example, 2100 hypothesizes that a unanimous shift to plant-based diets will occur, reducing the amount of land needed for farming by 36%. This kind of thinking ignores the integral role that sustainable, small-scale animal husbandry and meat consumption play in countless cultures in North America and around the world. It misses the mark. Instead of shifting the blame onto the individual, we must hold the Big Agriculture giants to account for their recklessness towards the environment. While the rate of meat consumption among non-Indigenous populations in the US and Canada poses a number of ethical issues, as well as public health and environmental concerns; so does a sudden, massive shift towards diets that depend on soy and nuts for protein. The industrial production of these plants depends on monocropping, which is already eroding away our biodiversity. The blind spot occurs again and again throughout 2100. It doesn’t attempt a critique of the market-based approaches to urban design that catapulted us into this crisis in the first place. There is no discussion of who will be left behind as millionaires buy up the hot new real estate of the compact megacities; no hint of universal rent control and no plan for the construction of public housing. The authors don’t acknowledge that the extraction cities will depend on a subjugated class of migrant labourers, while the bourgeoisie and the professional managerial class will be able to remain in the relative safety of the compact megacities year-round.
Essentially, what’s proposed is a world of advanced capitalism and 100% renewable energy. Drawing on research by Ecofys, a renewable energy advocacy firm, the ideas in 2100 hinge on the idea that ”energy use can be lower while living standards and economic development continue to rise.” For the most part, 2100 is a world in which we have our cake and eat it too: where we can continue to grow the economy while lowering our energy use. How the current class war plays out in this dystopian utopia seems to be a question these designers won’t approach.
A world without a middle scale
The world we’re shown is one that architectural renderings have become very good at depicting: brand-new, glassy, hyperbolic building forms tower over outsized green lawns and criss-crossing pathways populated by a parade of stock humans. There’s a lack of a middle scale in these proposals, which was also a major failure of Brasilia or of the contemporary dystopia of Kazakhstan’s capital, Nur-Sultan. While it’s easy to copy and paste stock images of people milling about in an urban plaza; it’s much harder for a designer to create true community spaces. Much of what’s shown is a world of heavy-handed designs that impose a unified aesthetic across an entire landscape, ignoring the patchwork of vernacular buildings that characterizes the organic growth of our towns and cities.
In her introduction to the book, StudioTEKA principal Vanessa Keith suggests that the solution will be both bottom-up and top-down, quoting from Bossomaier and Green’s Patterns in the Sand, “…We have to focus on the local interactions: change these, and the rest will follow.”
But where are these “local interactions” in 2100? Rather than offer a “trickle-up” ideology such as that of radical municipalism, the designs within the book offer a vision of top-down design and of a large-scale, global model of production.
Saskia Sassen’s buoyant introduction speaks to the idea of “delegating back to the biosphere.” She sees cities, in all their complexity, as our best impression of the biosphere itself and applauds the book’s authors for moving “beyond mitigation and adaptation.” Reading between the lines, her words seem to beg for a new definition of what it means to be urban, not for an evolution of the techno-metropolises we already have. A sweeping shift to renewable energy means employing the biosphere in our systems of production rather than empowering the biosphere. The book ultimately maintains a dualism of human and land, in which land continues to be seen as a resource.
The notion of urban growth is identified as a challenge in the foreword, but goes unquestioned for most of the book. Many of the designs echo the wistful refrains of architecture academia – more schools, more libraries – because spaces for community are inherently more engaging to design. But to be able to work on these kinds of projects, designers need to tackle the overhaul of the political economy head-on. We need to work with other disciplines to imagine and implement a culture of mutual aid needed to prioritize these institutions.
Design for a world after capitalism
It’s fitting that this ambitious project was taken on by an architecture studio. On the first day of school, architects are told that we will change the world. We’re told we are generalists; that our work is the work of many disciplines, synthesized into its material form. But as real estate and resource extraction continues to drive our social and environmental ecologies into collapse, it would be a mistake to think we can simply design our way out in the traditional sense. What we need are interdisciplinary approaches at the scale of what StudioTEKA has begun to do, but with a much more headstrong focus on reshaping our political economy—a conversation largely ignored in design circles. The sites in 2100 are chosen strategically, and they suggest a monumental mass migration but never once mention the ugly ways that the class system of capitalist nations rears its head in a “green” transition.
The flaw of 2100 is not that it’s unrealistic—in fact, it follows the protocols of today’s neoliberal environmentalism quite realistically to their natural end. But it does not offer us a way out.
There is one proposal in the book that does stand out as a more sophisticated challenge to architecture’s habit of producing more stuff, and as a provocative step toward a new kind of city. In the Phoenix scenario, StudioTEKA propose a “green deconstruction” of a city that, in 2019, is the heart of the the fastest-growing metropolitan region in the US. In the plan, the region plummets into severe drought and experiences a mass exodus. It’s then transformed into one of the proposed extraction cities as its housing stock is hand-demolished in phases with the goal of salvaging building parts and making way for dew collectors, greenhouses, solar farms, and wind parks. This scheme implies a massive overhaul of the real estate market through the expropriation of homes to the city. In a beautiful display of what architect Keller Easterling has termed “subtraction,” a city is imagined to shrink to a scale that might allow for a more localized economy, and possibly for much stronger solidarity between its residents, largely seasonal renters who work in the city’s proposed renewable energy sector in the mild winter months.
The flaw of 2100 is not that it’s unrealistic—in fact, it follows the protocols of today’s neoliberal environmentalism quite realistically to their natural end. But it does not offer us a way out from a system that privileges the few at the cost of the many. On the whole, the proposals in the book are bold, but prove to be flimsy as they reveal their failure to take into account that the climate catastrophe arises from the ecology we have created for ourselves—a system of being in and understanding the world in which a capitalist political economy sets the terms.
We need to ask: how will ecosystems withstand the increased mining of rare minerals needed for the capture of renewable energy? How will we organize a growing population in a way that is sustainable, while maintaining a connection to the land?
We need to ensure that our innovations aren’t funneled into building “climate-proof” fortresses for the rich. We need to demand that frontline communities are prioritized; that real estate speculation is abolished; that with a reconstruction on this scale we can also overhaul our political economy into one that ensures what Donna Haraway calls the “ongoingness” of all. Designing for a post-climate crisis world inheres designing for a world after capitalism.
Sasha Plotnikova is a designer, writer, and activist living in Los Angeles. She is a proud member of the Los Angeles Tenants Union, the environmentalist study group OOLA, and the architecture faculty at Cal Poly Pomona. She tweets at @sashaplot_.
What will it take for human civilization to thrive in a more equitable and sustainable existence on Earth? The enormous violence we see directed at the planet and amongst its inhabitants adds a tremendous sense of urgency to this question. There are many answers that seem compelling. Some answers are technological—we need to be more innovative and use science and technology to solve global problems. Other answers are economic—better pricing will be our ecological salvation. While others still suggest we build and maintain institutions and movements to regulate industries and the environmental bads that flow from the economy.
Too few look more fundamental answers or probe for deeper questions about solutions. Why do we extract and produce so much? Do we need all the consumer products that are produced from natural resources to live a happy life? What kind of economy can we build that allows us to live with better relations to each other and our planet?
Degrowth, by Dr. Giorgos Kallis of the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technology (ICTA) of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, is an introduction to the ideas and genesis of a namesake concept in environmental studies that emphasizes dematerialization of the economy, but that also embodies a lot more. Kallis’ interdisciplinary scholarship contributes to the fields of political ecology and ecological economics, two fields that are heavily influential in shaping the main arguments of the book. I have used Kallis’ articles on degrowth in my courses for many years now, so it is a great privilege to have the opportunity to review this longer-form work.
The basic idea of degrowth is that
there are laws of physics that dictate certain physical and natural resource
limits on the economy. Most important are the laws of thermodynamics, notably
the second law, which asserts that the quality of energy or its ability to do
work in a closed system always declines with each transformation.
Accordingly, production—the material basis of the economy and economic growth—is entropic. The more we produce, the more we degrade our natural resources. This means there is an inherent contradiction between economic growth and ecological sustainability because eventually the energy in a system degrades in quality and there is none left that is capable of doing work. According to this theory, while resource efficiency and technological change are important to improving some environmental issues, economic growth ultimately has limitations. Either economic growth hits natural resource limitations that lead to its decline, or, eventually, as the global population begins to decline, the economy could contract.
Degrowth is just as much a prescription
for scholar-activism to examine pathways towards sustainability and environmental
justice, as it is a pathway for positive environmental change. In other words, when
people hear degrowth, many only think only of the pathway from the material
sense, as in degrowth means using less or dematerialization. But as Kallis
clearly articulates degrowth embodies more than just the dematerialized pathway
to sustainability, but as normative precepts that center values such as justice,
equity, race, gender, and living wage work.
Degrowth as it refers to the material
throughput of human civilization is a sobering reminder of the challenges ahead
and the lack of progress on many environmental issues. There are examples of
decarbonization of some electricity sectors around the world, for example in
California. But the overall use of natural resource impacts from human
civilization continues to increase.
of the book
Degrowth was coined in French scholarship in the early 1970s,
where the ideas were brought into contact with theories of social change that
emphasize autonomy and appropriate technology. Chapter 1 one describes these
origins of degrowth as a topic of investigation and debate in environmental
research. It opens with a short intellectual history of ecological economics
and the emergence of the concept degrowth, drawing on contributions from Nicholas
Georgescu-Roegen, Herman Daly, Serge Latouche, Cornelius Castoriadus, to
contemporary work done with colleagues at ICTA.
Kallis’ narrative weaves together a number of influential social scientists, philosophers, and writers that offer insights on the ultimate roots of social and environmental problems such as Ursula Le Guin, J.K. Gibson-Graham, David Harvey, Hannah Arendt, Karl Polyani, Ivan Illich, André Gorz, Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Joan Martinez-Alier, to name a few. The articulation of ideas from these thinkers and integration into the motivation and rationale for degrowth, illustrates the breadth of Kallis’ scholarship and quality of writing.
Tracing the intellectual roots of
degrowth to The Limits To Growth,
Kallis shows how several key themes emerged as ideas underlying ecological economics
were read alongside theories of social change, anthropology, development
studies, and interpreted through the lens of environmental justice and
post-colonial theory. The resulting vision for degrowth is of social relations
with reduced the extraction and pollution, that maintains diverse economies, that
values leisure over growth for its own sake, and is based on strong empathetic
What is the economy? Chapter 2 grapples
with the idea of a socially-constructed economy. The chapter revisits the origins
of the ideas underlying how we imagine the health of economy, for example the Dow
Jones Index or gross domestic product (GDP). How did it come to be that the imperative
of economic growth became a core motivation of nation states in modern
One core contention is that economic
policies that use gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of well-being
should be abandoned. The most widely known illustration of this general point
is Daniel Kahneman’s “happiness-income paradox,” where people’s happiness is
not linked to the amount of money they make. This finding, which garnered a
Nobel prize in economics, was a challenge to Western ideas of progress, which
have long used economic growth as a yardstick of development. GDP has some
glaring problems including the fact that it includes spending on activities
that are negative—storm damage, deforestation, hospital visits, asthma inhalers,
for example. There are other indices attempting to move beyond GDP, including
the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare and Human Development Index, but
these too are not without gaps and shortcomings. Also challenging is the
commensuration of complex, undifferentiated social processes into numbers in
the first place, as Kallis notes.
Chapter 3 recounts the emergence of
economic growth in the 20th century phenomena and puts it in the
context of an increase in socio-ecological metabolism, i.e., the total use of
materials and energy of society, which has ushered in extinction and climate
crises. As economic growth marched on, so did ecological degradation and labor
Are growth and ecological
sustainability compatible? The case for degrowth is laid out in chapter 4
starting from the basic premise that material extraction and pollution increase
with economic growth. Some environmental scholars, such as economists or
sociologists adhering to ecological modernization, hold that we could maximize resource
efficiency through technological change and/or accurate pricing (internalizing
externalities). If this were possible, growth and ecological sustainability
could be compatible.
Degrowth advocates like Kallis, instead
argue that the two are incompatible. This is not to argue against trends
towards resource efficiency. They are not against, for example, recycling solar
panels, to utilize more sustainable materials use. Instead, they argue that much
more than resource efficiency and technological change is needed to avoid the
worst of our relations between the economy and its environmental impacts. For
example, recycling solar panels would embody certain principles of a circular
economy, but so would reusing old solar panels, which is not about technology,
but instead requires building new institutions, policies, and practices. Transitioning
to a sustainable economy according to the theory of degrowth will require
changes to wants, values, institutions, and behaviors.
Chapter 5 presents the utopian vision that
motivates degrowth, its ambitions and engagements with the material world. Kallis
admits that degrowth is aspirational, but nonetheless believes these utopian
ideals are critical to meeting the objectives in the policy and praxis of
degrowth. The precepts of degrowth include (1) end to exploitation of nature,
people, gender, (2) direct democracy, (3) localized production, (4) a sharing
economy, (5) good socio-ecological relationships, (6) investments in
unproductive expenditures (e.g., natural capital), (7) an ethics of care,
alongside the redistribution of care work.
These appear to be radical
reorientations from framings that say little about social change beyond changes
to technologies. Table 5.1 lists policies for degrowth, revealing that while
some of the policies and practices advocated are in fact transformative, but
many are similar to those advocated by the environmental and climate action
communities already—tax reforms, polluter pays principle, ethical banking,
green jobs investments, environmental justice. So while degrowth seeks more
wholesale social and personal change, its basket of policy options reflects
much of the mainstream tools used in environmental policy-making. Degrowth
seems to have some agnosticism to environmental policy tools, based on the list
of policies in table 5.1, except of course those policies that involve green
washing, commodification, dispossession, or land grabs.
Chapter 6 explores some of the key
challenges to degrowth. It offers a response to some of the critics that
suggest that degrowth would lead to decreased well-being. Kallis’ contention is
that degrowth means capping resource use in some way, and does not advocate income
loss or declines in well-being. The idea is that a radical shift in values and
motivations will change the way that happiness and well-being is measured in
the first place. Kallis brings together the foundation of ecological economics
with a Gramscian model—using grassroots activism to use the tools of the state
to benefit the population—of social change. Is degrowth compatible with
capitalism? Liberal democracy? Is it Eurocentric? These tensions are discussed
as Kallis summarizes arguments of critics of degrowth.
The main contention of critics of
degrowth is the issue of decoupling. The green growth perspective argues that
economic growth can be decoupled from natural resource use. So unlimited growth
in this view is possible if there are ways to dissociate economic growth from
any material basis. Kallis contends that there is still no evidence for
decoupling, suggesting that substitutionism seen in the electricity sector
(most notably coal to natural gas and renewables) involves a lot of one-offs
that will lead to short-term reductions in greenhouse gases, but do not clearly
show a sustained rate of decline overall, and do not consider other
environmental issues (land, extractive industries, waste, etc.). Critics may
still say, but what if evidence of decoupling did emerge? This is the question
degrowth scholars will have to continue to contend with.
read the book, make your students read and think about it
Irrespective of whether the reader
agrees with degrowth as a normative goal, one cannot ignore the observation
that there are no real world examples of decoupling. Until examples of
decoupling economic growth from natural resource impact can be demonstrated,
ideas embraced by degrowth for how to enagage in a just transition deserve real
engagement. Furthermore, given how growth depends on natural resources, and
control over natural resources figures in geopolitical contests, the pursuit of
growth will necessitate the continuation of militarized capitalism, with all of
the tortured and unequal socio-ecological relations that tends to reproduce.
is an important contribution to the environmental studies canon. It synthesizes
an important strand of the intellectual history of degrowth and ecological
economics and integrates ideas from development studies, political ecology,
cultural studies. The book is highly accessible for college students or readers
with an interest in society and the environment. Each chapter ends with a
summary of the argument, which is helpful for many of us who will use the book
in the classroom. Degrowth is essential
reading for environmental studies, political ecology, and energy transition studies
courses. I commend Kallis for producing such a concise and readable book on such
a critical topic, and look forward to discussing its contents with my students.
Dustin Mulvaney is an Associate Professor in the Environmental Studies Department at San José State University. His research is on just transitions in the solar industry.
I chose to read Donatella di Cesare’s Heidegger and the Jews and review it out of curiosity. However, as soon as I received the book and started to read it, I felt sorry for myself for having agreed to do this. Not only because of the book itself— the text is dense, chapter after chapter. The sheer amount of information is incredible. But the main reason for being sorry, however, is because of the topic and how ‘me being curious’ but not a real expert in matters concerning the philosopher Martin Heidegger, immediately felt that I could not justify myself to do this task. Still, my curiosity won.
In this review I will address why di Cesare wrote this book and what she hoped to achieve with it. I will also comment if I think she was successful in that. It is because of the ‘Black Notebooks’ recently having been published that she hoped to find the answer to the question, ‘Why did Heidegger remain silent about what happened with the Jews during World War two?’ Although in the book she is convincing about Heidegger’s anti-Semitism, it is this question about his silence that drives her.
Understanding Heidegger’s philosophy is not easy. Di Cesare has not written this book for beginners. To appreciate her analysis of the recently published ‘Black Notebooks’, some overview or introduction to basic concepts is needed. Those notebooks are philosophical texts, by the way, not personal diaries. So, to begin with I provide some context here myself, through the work of another philosopher, namely Louiza Odysseos. Through her essay, ‘Radical Phenomenology, Ontology, and International Political Theory’, I try to give a picture of what Heidegger is about.
Heidegger was Edmund Husserl’s student. Husserl conceptualized phenomenology as a proposition to go back to the things themselves. It was clearly a response to the consequences of Descartes’ philosophy that had become too much of an ‘I can think it therefore I know it’, kind of idea. This was a very powerful idea as it emancipated philosophy from religion. Husserl meant to take a distance from immediate interpretation (so called ‘epoche’, meaning one ‘suspends’ oneself from one’s intentions). Another term introduced by Husserl, was ‘bracketing’. That means one puts aside what one already knows, in order to look afresh from the experience of what it is one is researching. However a big point of debate in Husserl’s philosophy is his idea of the transcendental ego. This means that even when you discard immediate interpretation, you still are left with some kind of self that looks upon the world, thinking about it (and thus interpreting).
Now Heidegger wasn’t happy with this transcendental ego and came up with a different version of phenomenology, as Husserl’s version (and others) meant falling back on ‘traditional definitions dividing man into reason and sense, soul and body, inner and outer, without a sense of what holds these realities together as a whole’ (Odysseos, 2002, p. 377). In fact, philosophers at the time posed two questions to Husserl, and Heidegger took upon himself to answer them. Here Odysseos quotes Kisiel 1on these fundamental questions: ‘How is the non-objectifiable subject matter of phenomenology to be even approached without already theoretically inflicting an objectification upon it? How are we to go along with life reflectively without de-living it?’ She continues: ‘Such a fundamental challenge was aimed at the very basis of phenomenology as a means of access to lived experience that guarded against the objectification imposed by reflection and theoretical constructs. The second objection voiced the doubt that, in addition to the first problem of accessibility, phenomenology was not able to express its purported access to its subject matter without recourse to theoretical construction’ (Odysseos, 2002, p. 378).
Heidegger formulated answers to these two most critical questions, through coming up with what he called existential analysis. ‘Existential analysis concerns itself with the structures of existence (Dasein / RZ: Being) in order to find out how Dasein is without assuming in advance, as was the case
with traditional ontology, what it is. The how and what are related since, as Heidegger has shown in his rejoinder to Natorp, there is an “initial” unity of method and subject matter in human experience. In rejecting the phenomenological isolation of the pure “I” from the perceptual objects, phenomenology and ontology become explicitly intertwined: in interpretative phenomenology, the “perceiving subject” turns to inquire about itself as the “perceptual object.” The analysis of Dasein shows it to be both the investigator and that which is interrogated. Hence, Heidegger’s phenomenological concern becomes the manner in which Dasein shows “itself to itself” (Odysseos, 2002, p. 382).
Many philosophers are quite happy with Heidegger’s work (not his anti-Semitism) because it implies that seeing and understanding everything in the world is relational. It also points at beings in a world that is already given, but at the same time holds potential. This is not necessarily from individual positions, but from positions of collectivity and mutual dependency, including dependency on the land. This is where Heidegger started to mix his philosophy of phenomenology with politics of anti-Semitism.
Now back to Di Cesare. She doesn’t fight the relevance of his thoughts on phenomenology still acknowledged today, for that would become an either-or kind of analysis of all good or all bad. Instead she focuses on the meta-level of philosophy and politics. Her book is an analysis of a philosopher and his responsibility for his published writing.
Her astonishment (and that of many others) is that he hardly did take any responsibility. Many others have written about Heidegger and the commentaries over the last decades had more or less come to a rest. However, as di Cesare states it is the recent publishing of the Black Notebooks that has renewed people’s interest in the man and generated a renewed debate about him, not only among philosophers, but also with a broader audience. Di Cesare explains her own interest in writing this book quite early on in the introduction, where she says:
‘For that matter, anti-Semitism is not an emotion, a feeling of hatred that comes and goes and can be circumscribed within a particular period. Anti-Semitism has a theological provenance and a political intention. In the case of Heidegger, it also takes on a philosophical significance’ (p. viii).
In other words, Di Cesare says that Heidegger’s anti-Semitism was deeply rooted in his philosophy (in the way he applied it himself). Her first problem is trying to understand this ‘application’. For that, Di Cesare explains that Heidegger and Judaism had many points in common, ranging from the concepts of nothingness, to the concept of time. But Heidegger took a different turn when putting ‘Being’ (RZ; Dasein) on the foreground. It is there where he ‘recoiled. Being was more important. The Jew was left aside’ (p.ix).
What was his problem with them? Di Cesare: ‘To the Jews, seen as the rootless agents of modernity, accused of machination to seize power, of the desertification of the earth, of uprooting peoples, condemned to be weltlos – worldless, “without world”- Heidegger imputed the gravest guilt: the oblivion of Being. The Jew was a sign of the end of everything, impeding (RZ: prohibiting) the rise of a new beginning’ (p.ix).
But then an even bigger question for Di Cesare is about Heidegger’s silence and the way he didn’t budge under the post war attempts to have him speak (many people tried) and comment on his thinking and responsibility. Does she find an answer to this question, ‘Why the silence?’ Let’s see.
In the second part of the book – Di Cesare illustrates the history of the hatred of the Jews in philosophy. This goes far beyond Heidegger. She goes back to Martin Luther and further illustrates that Judeophobia is not only a German phenomenon. However, Germany started looking for an identity from the Middle Ages on. The role played by Jews in the Enlightenment—while present in Germany in large numbers—created perhaps more of an entanglement for German identity than elsewhere in Europe. Di Cesare then discusses Hegel and Nietzsche who, both for different reasons, rejected the teachings of Judaism. From here she makes a connection to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, where rejection of Judaism has gone to absurd extremes with the argument that the fact that Judaism has not changed its essence over the course of centuries, shows a lack of the capacity to establish or initiate things (p.60). Di Cesare points at this argument coming back frequently in Heidegger’s Black Notebooks.
The third part of the book focusses on the question of ‘Being and the Jewish question’.
Here Di Cesare discusses extensively Heidegger’s concept of Being:
Thus, for Heidegger, being-in-the-world was the way in which being exists – constantly emerging – ex-isting – from the facticity [the quality or state of being a fact] into which it had been thrown. For him, Being was not simple presence: rather, it was always the potential of being. Being-in-the- world constantly goes beyond itself, projecting itself toward its own possibilities, starting not from a stable, objective base, but instead emerging from an abyss of nothingness, in which those possibilities threaten to disappear. In its projection, Being comports itself toward the things that it encounters in a praxis that has no cognitive velleitty [desire to be ‘what one is able to represent, conceive, and express] (p.162-163).
In this way, the world (der welt) depends on ‘Being’. Therefore, Heidegger thinks of animals as world poor (welt arm) and of the inanimate things as without world (welt loss). Then further on in the text Di Cesare says:
In Heidegger’s view, the Jew, a petrified and unassimilable remnant in the history of Being, threatens in turn to petrify Being. His a-cosmic, distorting inertia weighs upon the planet, already darkened and desertified; he darkens every light, precludes any clearing, cancels out any place on earth from which the world might spring forth, in an acceleration which, in the eschatological background [Christian eschatology is the study of the ultimate destiny of the individual soul and the entire order], infinitely reiterates the end (p. 164).
With Judaism, Jews became a metaphysical enemy. Di Cesare then states that in being drawn into metaphysics—looking to answer lives questions in terms of generalities—Heidegger was lead in complete darkness, wanting to find the answer to the question of the essence of the Jew. This was a philosopher’s error against his own phenomenological method where the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ could not be separated. But he did separate them.
After the war
In the fourth part of the book Di Cesare discusses the post-Auschwitz period. In this part, she further analyses Heidegger’s writing and teaching (although he was expelled from teaching at his University shortly after the war) and his public appearance. In an interview in Der Spiegel published September 1966, Heidegger states about his involvement with National Socialism that ‘I believed then that in my encounter with National Socialism a way could be opened, the only possible way’. Further down on the same page Di Cesare says: without admitting that that had been for him the path to revolution, the epochal event of Being, a philosophical path more than a political one; on the other hand, Heidegger did not attempt to pass himself off as a late-blooming democrat—he did not believe in, nor had he ever believed in, democracy—much less in the “technological age.” Even in the last pages that he wrote, Heidegger spoke of “the destiny of the Germans,” but he did not speak about any responsibility on their part. Not even one syllable about the extermination. Nothing’ (p.179). Heidegger died in 1976. But it is from the Black Notebooks (numbers II-XV were published in 2014, others in 2015 and more to follow) that Di Cesare manages to construct some answers to the questions he did not answer himself during his life. What astonishes and repels her (after having analysed the Black Notebooks, she gave up her membership of the Martin Heidegger Society) becomes clear from the next passage: In keeping with his metaphysical anti-Semitism, Heidegger interpreted the extermination of the Jews as a “self-annihilation”: the Jews would annihilate themselves. Agents of modernity, complicit with metaphysics, the Jews followed the destiny of technology, which was summed up in the word Verzehr (RZ: consumption): the usurers would lend themselves, the consumers would consume themselves, the destroyers would end up destroying themselves. If the Jews were being annihilated in the lagers, it was on account of the Gestell (RZ: frame), the technological framework to take over the world that they had promoted and fostered everywhere (p.201).
Di Cesare has given us an extensive analysis of Heidegger’s thinking about the Jews and his silence after Auschwitz, based on the Black Notebooks. The main reason for his silence according to Di Cesare is that the man himself identified with his metaphysical analysis of the Jews as well as believing that the Germans were the victims of the World (infected by Jewish nihilism and ‘gestell’). It is for the reader to decide for him or herself about Heidegger. What is relevant is to see if Di Cesare’s book, in the context of Heidegger taking responsibility for the publications of his thinking and his silence after Auschwitz, has given us valuable insights about him. I think so.
What do you think about this, as a PhD student interested in environmental philosophy? How does it affect your own understanding of his philosophy, and your possible use of it as a student? How does it relate to environmental philosophy (where Heidegger’s philosophy is common?)
Rembrandt Zegers is finishing his PhD on leading nature practices and what such practices tell us about relating to nature. He worked for Greenpeace International, Ernst & Young and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Currently he is promoting Earth Trusteeship as an innovation in governance, that bases itself on an inclusive relation with nature.
Heidegger and the Jews: The Black Notebooks is available from Polity.
Here in Britain we are living on the cusp of catastrophe. A bad break Brexit could lead to chaos, gridlocked lorries on the M25 because of a new customs regime and even food shortages. Ten years after the financial crisis, the world is due a new cyclical economic crisis. In turn, climate change is leading to increasingly chaotic weather. In fact the catastrophe is already here, living and breathing, spending cuts as part of Theresa May’s austerity programme, are pushing the heads of the poorest below the waterline. Graham Jones, a self-educated organic intellectual, hairdresser and exponent of radical mindfulness, has written a short guide to turning crisis into opportunity, called The shock doctrine of the left. The book is part map, part story, part escape manual. Easy and enjoyable to read, it provokes us to read more and will help us to be politically active in more effective ways.
The shock doctrine of the left ignores moralism and policy making. Neither does it come up with a blueprint for a better society, or a list of policies that might be introduced.
The shock doctrine of the left ignores moralism and policy making. The obvious moral failures of 21st century capitalism are accepted but this provides a starting point rather than making up an agonized critique of what is wrong. Neither does it come up with a blueprint for a better society, or a list of policies that might be introduced. While concepts such as a universal basic income scheme are described, this book focusses on how those of us who are politically active can act strategically to make effective change.
Graham Jones clearly and, in my opinion, correctly, believes that part of the strategic processes of making practical change relies on having effective concepts. Concepts are tools that can be used to transform social reality. While this might sound a little abstract or unconvincing, the concept of the “shock doctrine”, used in the book’s title, is a good illustration.
In her book The shock doctrine, Naomi Klein, the Canadian political activist and writer, argued that sudden and dramatic change had been increasingly exploited by the right to make changes in society, moving things in a pro-corporate direction. For example, the second Iraq War, with its massive disruption of the country, was used to try to engineer Iraq society to be more neoliberal. By neoliberal, I mean a combination of, on the one hand, free market forces that reduce state intervention in social welfare and other forms of human care, combined, paradoxically, with a stronger state support for corporations along with military and police control. Klein argues that shocks can be used to restructure society to the benefit of the rich and powerful. This is not a conspiracy theory: the shocks are usually not deliberate, but, when they do occur, they are used by right-wing forces.
The financial crisis of 2008 is another example. Caused by reduced bank regulation under pro-market governments, it was used in Britain as a justification to introduce spending cuts that also moved British society in a more neoliberal direction. Climate disasters such as hurricanes may be used to restructure cities, remove social housing, and initiate pro-corporate urban development.
In this short book, however, Graham Jones looks at how increasing crisis can open up space for the left to promote a future that is friendly to social and ecological goals, rather than allowing for corporate control.
His book is very easy to read but at the same time extremely thought-provoking. He tends to produce ideas which seem new to those of us who have been politically active over several decades, but perhaps more familiar to a more recent political generation. He explains them with vivid images and interesting stories and suggests further reading we can use to deepen our knowledge.
Much of the book is based on ideas from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995). Deleuze is perhaps best known for the two-part book he co-wrote with Felix Guattari, Capitalism andSchizophrenia. Deleuze is popular amongst many activists and intellects on the left, but difficult to understand. Deleuze’s books on philosophy depend on the effects that they inspire in readers. One virtue of reading Jones’ book is that I understood a little more about Deleuze.
I may be misleading readers by giving the impression that the book is about philosophy and difficult to read or understand ideas. In fact it is very clear and takes a resolutely non-academic approach, concepts are, to repeat, illustrated by appealing stories.
The argument put forward is that there are different ‘logics of the left’. We are not talking about ‘dialectic materialism’ versus ‘Fabianism’ here. The logics of smashing, building, healing and taming are discussed, each in its own brief chapter. Finally the book ends with a chapter linking these under the title of meta-strategy.
The book suggests that to make change we need to understand systems. Social reality is based on processes that work within networks. Jones argues that the systems we live within can be understood as bodies which are made up of other bodies. Through various actions we can reshape these bodies. In this way, power is defused throughout a society. It is therefore not a matter of simply electing a government that will ‘take power’ and make better laws. Power isn’t found in one place. The notion of a traditional revolutionary party modeled by Lenin is also inappropriate: there is no Winter Palace to be stormed, as in the Bolshevik Revolution.
It’s not really like any book I have read on political strategy before, its both strange (but in a good way) and very easy to understand.
It’s not really like any book I have read on political strategy before. It’s both strange (but in a good way) and very easy to understand. I think if I wanted to capture its approach—not that it can really be captured—one sentence in the middle of book comes close to giving an idea of what The shock doctrine of the left is all about: ‘It involves mapping the bodies around us – their parts, relations and wholes, their paths and speeds – and developing interventions for altering them to our advantage.’ (page 37).
What we do—electioneering, supporting a strike, or getting involved in a social centre—is practical action. The simply and clearly outlined concepts developed in The shock doctrine of the left help us to put our action into context, so as to make it effective. We intervene informed by a map of how things are and how our intervention can shape them productively.
The book isn’t for everyone. It sometimes seems a little slight and to leave many questions left without an answer. However no book is the book to end all books. It is a charming look at social change that, for me, at least, reminds me of some core concepts I find useful and introduced me to others. It is a Deleuzian book, if I understand him at all ( which I may not!), in the sense that it aims to produce practical effects and these effects are not predetermined.
Derek Wall teaches political economy and is a former International Coordinator of the Green Party. His new book Hugo Blanco: A Revolutionary Life will be published in November by Merlin Press.
The shock doctrine of the left by Graham Jones is published by Polity Press, as part of the Radical Futures series. You can find it here.