Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: news you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental justice, radical municipalism, new politics, political theory, and resources for action and education.
We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.
A little late this month, but we’re back with our August readings! We hope you enjoy what we put together. On top of the usual themes like degrowth, global environmental justice struggles, cities, and food politics, this list features a section on the (un)sustainability of fashion, an awesome piece on Marxism by Stuart Hall, and a free Leftist film archive.
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A small note that the articles linked in this newsletter do not represent the views of Uneven Earth. When reading, please keep in mind that we don’t have capacity to do further research on the authors or publishers!
Uneven Earth updates
Class struggle or degrowth? | Without class struggle the emancipatory potential of degrowth will fail to be realized. A revolutionary pedagogy can help to unify them
Fashion and colonialism. From sourcing and manufacturing to exporting waste, this class with Céline Semaan explores current practices that reproduce colonialism and exploitation in fashion, and how we can avoid such practices.
Taming the greedocracy. American elites want magical technological fixes to climate change because they refuse to confront the truth that seriously addressing the problem would require limits to their own power and luxury.
a recent New York Timesop-ed, Aaron
Bastani, author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism, called
refusals to adapt capitalist technologies under anti-capitalism’s banner a
failure of imagination:
“Ours is an age of crisis. We inhabit a world of low growth, low productivity and low wages, of climate breakdown and the collapse of democratic politics. A world where billions, mostly in the global south, live in poverty. A world defined by inequality.
But the most pressing crisis of all, arguably, is an absence of collective imagination. It is as if humanity has been afflicted by a psychological complex, in which we believe the present world is stronger than our capacity to remake it—as if it were not our ancestors who created what stands before us now. As if the very essence of humanity, if there is such a thing, is not to constantly build new worlds.
If we can move beyond such a failure, we will be able to see something wonderful. The plummeting cost of information and advances in technology are providing the ground for a collective future of freedom and luxury for all.“
is much to unpack here, part and parcel of a futurism more social democratic
than communist already critically reviewed here,here, and here.
democratic politics even possible under capitalism, as Bastani
off-handedly presumes? Is high growth an appropriate economic
marker even out of capitalist hands? And what of the apparent disconnect here between
all the new toys Bastani stans and that poverty in the global South?
be confining my objections here to the analytical core of Bastani’s thesis,
before briefly turning to what a science (and tech) for the people, tied to a
truly transformative shift in human relations, is already looking like instead.
On its face, the thesis is simple enough. Karl Marx, Bastani argues, was a capitalist. He even wrote a book about it. It’s a line for which the internet fed billionaire Elon Musk through a digital woodchipper. Herman Melville was a white whale, one wag riposted.
Bastani spins the reversal with a more erudite flair, claiming Marx’s affinities
for capitalism were more utilitarian. Communism depends on capitalism, much as
children depend on their parents. There must first be a means of production to
seize, after all. The deduction capsizes the standard interpretation that Marx pursued
his studies as a critique—right there in the subtitle of his major
work—by which we might break from capitalism.
That doesn’t mean socializing capitalism is by definition the only option forward. Now that would be a failure of imagination.
follows, Bastani continues, that a techno-optimism around the best of what
capitalism produces is the only communist future possible. It’s a veritable
truism that any new future will begin with where history to this point has left
us off. To various degrees, all of us are
presently slated inside capitalism’s historical moment. But, against Bastani, that
doesn’t mean socializing capitalism is by definition the only option forward.
Now that would be a failure of
It’s a notion that also opens a path to capitalizing socialism, exactly as Marx himself warned. Such strategy assumes capitalist power bends to good ideas and not, with enough cash and violence, the other way around. “In Amerika,” to reappropriate the prototypical Cold War sendup, “capital socializes you.”
“An aspect of Marx’s thinking which remains underemphasised is how he recognised capitalism’s tendency to progressively replace labour—animal and human, physical and cognitive—with machines. In a system replete with contradictions, it was this one in particular which rendered it a force of potential liberation.“
philosopher McKenzie Wark, for one, is sympathetically dismissive of this
“Read as low theory, rather than philosophy, Marx’s 1858 “Fragment on Machines” turns out to be interesting but of its time. He is bamboozled by this new machine system form of tech. He describes it, in mystified form as “a moving power that moves itself”. Actually it isn’t. A whole dimension is missing here: the forces of production are also energy systems. Entirely absent from this text is the simple fact that industrialization had run through all the forests of Northern Europe and then switched to coal, which was in turn more or less exhausted by our time. This is connected, as we shall see, to Marx’s failure to think through the metaphor of metabolism in this text.“
By way of human ecologist Andreas Malm and environmental sociologist John Bellamy Foster, Wark argues that Bastani-like celebrations of communist cyberocracy, in which machines reduce labour time in favor of people’s leisure, omit a critical element. They miss our relationship with the environment, the other key component of human appropriation. “Notice,” Wark continues,
“how energy finally appears here, but only the energy of human labor. [Marx] has not [yet] grasped the extent to which the replacement of human energy with fossil-fuel energy is very central to how capitalism unfolded.”
“‘Labor is the source of all wealth and all culture.’
Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. The above phrase is to be found in all children’s primers and is correct insofar as it is implied that labor is performed with the appurtenant subjects and instruments. But a socialist program cannot allow such bourgeois phrases to pass over in silence the conditions that lone give them meaning. And insofar as man from the beginning behaves toward nature, the primary source of all instruments and subjects of labor, as an owner, treats her as belonging to him, his labor becomes the source of use values, therefore also of wealth.
The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor. He can only work with their permission, hence live only with their permission.”
else is missing. Bastani’s steampunk portraiture—Marx’s telescopic eye
short-circuiting his own beard afire—sidelines the ways capitalist tech, and
the limited problems its owners choose
to solve, penetrate our social relations at their foundations. The modes of production Bastani celebrates
in capitalism co-produce the relations
of production—capital dominating the proletariat—to which he says he objects.
In agriculture, for instance, the gene editing Bastani champions isn’t really about solving problems presented in an albeit historicized natural economy still dependent on the sun, seasons, and organisms’ life cycles. These problems are dealt with in direct terms today by those agroecologies worldwide that haven’t been smashed by capitalist land grabs. The latest and greatest in genetic engineering aren’t needed where traditional breeding programs are perfectly capable even under rapid climate change. Proprietary GMOs are more about looping farmers into a ratchet of production that both subjects them to labour discipline and helps garnish the near-entirety of farm revenue.
Indeed—funny enough given Bastani’s tech fetish—capital is perfectly happy trashing research and development if its monopolies in economy and State power succeed in depressing competition and externalizing such costs of production to labour, consumer, government, and nature. In other words, the efficiencies for which capital incessantly searches, squeezing out every iota of surplus value, often have little to do with commodity production directly.
New tech can even get in the way of profit. Solar energy is only the most obvious example. But the drag is everywhere. Alongside reducing the number of breeding lines across plant and animal species, agribusiness consolidation reduces the numbers of geneticists working in the sector. Homogenization divorced from the biologies and behaviors of livestock extends to the science pursued.
Tech’s environmental hoaxes
these trajectories, Big Ag, emblematic of other industries, corners itself into
some darkly hilarious traps of its own making.
In the face of African swine fever, presently the world’s largest-ever livestock disease outbreak, the hog sector is pursuing suddenly fashionable facial recognition software to keep track of sick pigs (without changing the husbandry that sickens them). Despite efforts on the part of the sector to blame backyard producers, the outbreak is progressing hand-in-hoof with sharp increases in the numbers of total and per-farm head, declines in hog diversity, explosive growth in international exports shipping millions of head country-to-country, and a system design disallowing hybrid hogs who survive from breeding on-site and passing on their immunity. The incapacity to respond to African swine fever and other deadly diseases is built into the economic model before a single hog gets sick.
In other words, the sources of liberation technology Bastani upholds in actuality embody the very alienation to which Marx objected, divorcing both nature and humanity from possible solutions as problems arise. I’m not the first to point this out. Rut Elliot Blomqvist directly addressed this gap in Bastani’s argument last year. But power, as apparently playacted by the ecomodernist Left, is found in refusing to respond to such counternarratives with anything other than tweeted insult.
There are other interactions between our two sources of wealth—labour and the environment—that belie tech’s easy payoff. The environment can destroy labour and machines; earthquakes, for instance, to choose what was up until fracking the least socialized “natural” disaster outside a meteor strike. Of course, choosing to build a nuclear facility on a major fault is entirely money over matter run amok.
By the second contradiction of capitalism, labour and tech, in the other direction, can destroy the environments upon which they depend. Much of colonialism involves spatial fixes by which this damage is externalized onto the Indigenous, up until imperial might or the resources themselves or both run out. The cycle of accumulation then retracts into internal colonization as capital cashes out, as in the case of fracking in the U.S. Unless the resulting damage just offers the next window of investment, as, for instance, with oil and sand opening up in a melting Arctic.
the chain of relative opportunities conclude in abandoning the planet, dead
Mars, as even well-intended techno-optimism has cheered, somehow
represents a happy ending and not a recursion spun off into space. A Hard Timesheadline summarized an
analogous trap in all its dialectical tragicomedy: “Desperate Attempt to Escape
Mosh Pit Looks Exactly Like Moshing.”
Marxism has long observed, even under the neoclassical model, tech repeatedly
drives itself into a ditch. Innovations score quick profits until the new fixed
capital spreads, competition intensifies, and economic crises precipitate, to
be alleviated, or, better put, reconstituted by exports, monopoly, and war.
And by out-and-out murderous fraud. As we learned earlier this year, why deliver a fully functioning plane when you can upsell basic safety features? With Big Pharma in a productivity crisis, and the number of new drug classes in secular collapse, Sackler-owned Purdue Pharma pursued a “Project Tango” by which it sold cures to the opioid addictions that company reps, “turbocharging sales,” pushed doctors to prescribe in the first place. The company, turning rent-seeking from land to body, aimed to make itself an “end-to-end pain provider.”
In promising fully automated communism, left technologism quietly factors out our present pace in tech evolution from the market cycles underlying it.
Another round of innovation isn’t necessarily about use value, as tech-optimists focus on, but on resetting such market grifts. As the payoff is the endpoint that matters, many an innovation is only tangentially related to what the commodity is used for by the consumer. In promising fully automated communism, left technologism quietly factors out our present pace in tech evolution from the market cycles underlying it. But planned obsolesce and other such sleights-of-hand shouldn’t be folded in as virtues in any vision of modern communism.
It isn’t just the resulting despoliation of land and sea that shows environmental conservation is antithetical to the rules of this game. Against the hype of green capitalism, more efficient production, say, growing more food per hectare, doesn’t save the environment. By the Jevons paradox, such successes only spread out, taking the lead eating through the “saved” resource. Along the way, as more of the resource is destroyed, what’s left of what once was part of our shared commons suddenly accrues value it never had. Under Lauderdale’s paradox, a decaying resource base isn’t grounds for good corporate governance but serves as the basis for a fight for the leftovers, as in the case of the multinational rush for the last of the world’s “virgin” farmland in Africa.
As if right off the pages of the National Review, left accelerationists square this circle by dismissing environmentalism as neo-Malthusian catastrophism. There are no ecological precipices, they claim. A boundless nature automatically cleans up after humanity’s expropriation. Water, for one, doesn’t disappear, Jacobin accelerationist and Verso author Leigh Phillips posted on a recent Facebook thread, it just transforms into another form something else in the food chain can use. It’s a Žižekian gambit, the philosopher’s lateral lisp ablazing: DEY VILL BE MORE ECOSOCIALISH DAN DA ECOSOCIALISH DEMSHELVE. With a neoclassical faith in Earth’s regenerative powers that outstrips the biosphere itself.
Back on this planet, on the other hand, with an uneven relational geography of per capita freshwater use largely driven by global North agriculture and industrial production alienated from the very ecological processes appealed to here, many a region’s quantifiable, and, yes, limited supply of potable water is crashing out.
History isn’t deterministic
ecomodernist missteps track back to inception.
hypothesized capital originated in a similar if era-specific game of socioenvironmental
whack-a-mole. To return to the very Grundrisse
to which accelerationists appeal and, as excerpted here, in the earlier German Ideology he wrote with Engels, Marx
traced capitalism’s genesis as a spiraling dialectic of population, machine, expropriation,
“The labour which from the first presupposed a machine, even of the crudest sort, soon showed itself the most capable of development. Weaving, earlier carried on in the country by the peasants as a secondary occupation to procure their clothing, was the first labour to receive an impetus and a further development through the extension of commerce. Weaving was the first and remained the principal manufacture. The rising demand for clothing materials, consequent on the growth of population, the growing accumulation and mobilisation of natural capital through accelerated circulation, the demand for luxuries called forth by the latter and favoured generally by the gradual extension of commerce, gave weaving a quantitative and qualitative stimulus, which wrenched it out of the form of production hitherto existing.
Alongside the peasants weaving for their own use, who continued with this sort of work, there emerged a new class of weavers in the towns, whose fabrics were destined for the whole home market and usually for foreign markets too. Weaving, an occupation demanding in most cases little skill and soon splitting up into countless branches, by its whole nature resisted the trammels of the gild. Weaving was therefore carried on mostly in villages and market-centres without gild organisation, which gradually became towns, indeed the most flourishing towns.“
is, by its very own combos of due cause and historical
chance, feudalism arrived upon the circumstances that prefigured
capital. In a dizzying dance, the effects of one feudal process turned into the
causes of another, to and fro.
contrary to tales left and right of capitalism’s genesis, capital never sprang
from Adam Smith’s or Milton Friedman’s (or Dr. Dre’s) head fully formed. The
transition in the prevalent mode of production, as Marx and Engels tie it off
here, emerged woven out of conditionally translated factors:
“With gild-free manufacture, property relations also quickly changed. The first advance beyond natural, estate-capital was provided by the rise of merchants whose capital was from the beginning moveable, capital in the modern sense as far as one can speak of it, given the circumstances of those times. The second advance came with manufacture, which again made mobile a mass of natural capital, and altogether increased the mass of movable capital as against that of natural capital. At the same time, manufacture became a refuge of [free labour] peasants from the gilds which excluded them or paid them badly, just as earlier the gild-towns had served as a refuge for the peasants from the oppressive landed nobility.”
Feudalism could very well have ended a different way. If we leap-frog forward into what we presume will be the far side of the age of capitalism, we should expect a similar storyboard, with cause and effect and happenstance pinballing back and forth. Facile determinism was, and will never be, the order of the day. Stochastic outcomes burble out from between social systems’ historical constraints.
then, isn’t just a matter of seizing physical factories, as if the objects they
produce, the ring of all rings, my precious, are revolution in a package. It’s fascinating
the extent to which some liberals grasp this point better than our leftish
techno-determinists. In encapsulating the grim scientific projections for
climate change in his recent book, a David
Wallace-Wells still bewitched with “our” present lifestyle hedged that
“these twelve threats described in these twelve chapters yield a portrait of the future only as best as it can be painted in the present. What actually lies ahead may prove even grimmer, though the reverse, of course, is also possible. The map of our new world will be drawn in part by natural processes that remain mysterious, but more definitively by human hands. At what point will the climate change grow undeniable, un-compartmentalizable? How much damage will have already been selfishly done? How quickly will we act to save ourselves and preserve as much of the way of life we know today as possible?
For the sake of clarity, I’ve treated each of the threats from climate change—sea-level rise, food scarcity, economic stagnation—as discrete threats, which they are not. Some may prove offsetting, some mutually reinforcing, and others merely adjacent. But together they form a latticework of climate crisis, beneath which at least some humans, and probably many billions, will live.“
The urban legend that Marx saw the most industrially advanced countries as necessarily the communist vanguard was dead wrong.
One can see why historian Eric Hobsbawm, bashing the arguments of Jacobin publisher Bhaskar Sunkara’s socialist manifesto before it was fashionable, insisted, as much as a matter of method as fact, that the urban legend that Marx saw the most industrially advanced countries as necessarily the communist vanguard was dead wrong. In fact, Hobsbawm continued, for better or worse, Marx and Engels placed early bets on a revolutionary (and decidedly agrarian) Russia:
“No misinterpretation of Marx is more grotesque than the one that suggests that he expected a revolution exclusively from the advanced industrial countries of the West…
Engels records their hopes of a Russian revolution in the late 1870s and in 1894 specifically looks forward to the possibility of ‘the Russian revolution giving the signal for the workers’ revolution in the West, so that both supplement each other.'”
Such a series of retroactive reversals—an ecological Marx, the gap between tech and problem-solving, and the possibility that communisms can emerge on the periphery out of a different combinatorial of production—is hard to assimilate if you’ve founded your political program upon radicalizing commodity fetishism at capital’s centre.
Turning outer space into Flint
particulars are as goofy as they are galling.
as it appears in his Times piece,
Bastani thinks food is only about basic nutrition or good taste (however
important these both are), then he has bought exactly into an agribusiness
productivism that making lots of (marketable) food is the task at hand.
wonder lab meat and other examples of cellular agriculture ring his bell. Never
mind food fully engulfed by industrial processing represents the next
generation in expropriation. No peasant
in the Amazon helping cultivate regenerative agroecologies need apply under Amazon’s (or Uber’s) business
plan for drone-striking edible petri dishes to your shipping container’s door.
Never mind such pellets are being produced by the very venture capital that helped
bring about the environmental crises in the first place. It’s as if tech frisson
alone is enough of a rationale to keep capital in power and objections to cease
Food sovereignty, in contrast, extends beyond such vulgar food security to a people’s right to control their land and labour in the course of producing culturally appropriate food they—they!—wish to grow and eat, if under the constraints of regional planning and wider gyres of global circulation.
Bastani’s wanton oversimplifications extend to health and energy. In an age of poisoned water in Flint, Michigan and the opioid epidemics spreading across farming communities around the world, he calls for tech-led interventions into health that are grounded in commoditization-friendly preformationisms about human biology. Health and disease are inside you from the start. One just needs a pill or genetic intervention to cure you. But in reality, such reductionist medicine works for only some diseases and is conspicuous in its dearth of notions of shared public health outside pharmaceutical market shares.
Backing an anti-Marxist ecology, Bastani pegs our energy demands to mining asteroids. Marx’s “Theft of Wood” in outer space. At what cost to Earth will it take to get us up there? Who will control the mines across The Expanse? Does this political economist’s effort to think through the likely political economy to emerge out of such a program extend beyond the cheery engineering porn many such Left proponents can’t seem to understand as it is?
Alain Badiou is scathing of such a
cheap politics, in this case so literal in its actualization:
“Blind worship of ‘novelty’ and contempt for established truths. This comes straight out of the commercial cult of the ‘novelty’ of products and out of a persistent belief that something is being ‘started’ that has already happened many times before. It simultaneously prevents people from learning from the past, from understanding how structural repetitions work, and from not falling for fake ‘modernities.'”
A Left actually working in the natural sciences is arriving at different conclusions, sketching out the horrific details of emerging capital-led tech.
a series of technical monographs (here,here, and here),
mathematical epidemiologist Rodrick Wallace uses information theory and control theory to show
efforts at developing artificial intelligence for driverless
cars or electric grids are grounded upon badly supported models of human
consciousness. The resulting fast-tracked experiments in silicon cognition,
conducted on public roads with little regulatory supervision, are lining up as
high-stakes demonstrations of what Wallace has described as machine psychopathology:
“The asymptotic limit theorems of control and information theories make it possible to explore the dynamics of collapse likely to afflict large-scale systems of autonomous ground vehicles that communicate with each other and with an embedding intelligent roadway. Any vehicle/road system is inherently unstable in the control theory sense as a consequence of the basic irregularities of the traffic stream, the road network, and their interactions, placing it in the realm of the Data Rate Theorem that mandates a minimum necessary rate of control information for stability. It appears that large-scale [vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure] systems will experience correspondingly large-scale failures analogous to the vast, propagating fronts of power network blackouts, and possibly less benign but more subtle patterns of individual vehicle, platoon, and mesoscale dysfunction.”
The moral calculus of the resulting accidents—who will driverless cars choose to kill—is giving even sociopaths such as Henry Kissinger the kind of pause that escapes our future-so-bright Left.
The information and tech revolutions Bastani presents as a cheap exit out of our present mess are proving costly even on days in which operations work perfectly.
information and tech revolutions Bastani presents as a cheap exit out of our
present mess are proving costly beyond such failures, even, much like infamous Bitcoin, on days in
which operations work perfectly. Technology
“In a new paper, researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, performed a life cycle assessment for training several common large AI models. They found that the process can emit more than 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent—nearly five times the lifetime emissions of the average American car (and that includes manufacture of the car itself).”
fully automated communist equivalent, sharing similar presumptions, much as Stalin and Cargill on industrialized
agriculture or the convergent political ergonomics behind Chernobyl and Three Mile
Island, would likely differ little in its catastrophic outcomes
save perhaps who exactly picks up the tab.
parallel to the misplaced magical thinking that disappears such inconveniences,
the ecomodernist program is fitted with a political tin ear as if a single EarPod
(the other lost at a boozy IPO launch). “Let’s leave Earth!” enthuses one of
Now there’s a rallying cry for the proletariat who are to be left behind. Space exploration extending beyond telescopy and into colonization represents the kind of innovation in accumulation that until now has given only more power to the Jeff Bezoses of the world. Or the Adam Dunkels, in the social democratic version. Through the guarded gate of a gravity well and with every canister of food, water, and air necessarily manufactured—and, as in Flint’s water, turned into a fictitious commodity—the powerful, already remote-programming on-the-spot firings, would be better able to control the people Bastani claims he aims to liberate.
Socializing sciences for the people
on their own terms, these phantasmagorias suck. Are other futures possible?
Ecosocialism and ecocommunism aim to transform society “away from socially and ecologically destructive systems.” Our capacity to socially reproduce ourselves as a species requires we integrate production, conservation, and human liberation—across labour, race, indigeneity, and gender, among other axes.
ecomodernist smears, alternatives in ecosocialism (here,here, and here, for a starter kit) aren’t organized
around prelapsarian fantasies of returning to a mode of production that existed
nowhere save in the minds of its critics. They are not, as left business
observer Doug Henwood and other accelerationists repeatedly
troll, neo-primitivisms championing eating twigs, living in huts, and reducing
the human population by 90%.
main shortcoming,” anarchist social theorist Kevin Carson rolls his eyes,
“is a failure to understand the significance of the technologies it sees as the basis for the post-capitalist system. Although Accelerationism celebrates advances in cybernetic technology and network communications as the building blocks of post-scarcity communism, it is tone deaf when it comes to the specific nature of the promise offered by these technologies, and actually runs directly counter to them. This failure includes a lazy conflation of localism and horizontalism with primitivism and backwardness (to the point of treating ‘neo-primitivist localism’ as a single phrase), and a lionization of verticality, centralism and planning.”
“[The] Severing [between the reality of a human-centric world and the real of ecological symbiosis across species] has produced physical as well as psychic effects, scars of the rip between reality and the real. One thinks of the Platonic dichotomy of body and soul: the chariot and the charioteer, the chariot whose horses are always trying to pull away in another direction. The phenomenology of First Peoples points in this direction, but left thought hasn’t been looking that way, fearful of primitivism, a concept that inhibits thinking outside agrilogistic parameters [of an industrial ecology without nature].”
Agroecologies and other community-led models mind this gap, organizing their ethoses around nature’s intrinsic fecundity while regularly adapting to the latest that soil and other regenerative sciences have to offer when made available. Along the way, these ‘back road’ methods refuse to divorce modes and relations of production as a matter of first principle. Nor do they just hand over their land and labour to assuage the brand loyalties upon which the Henwoods of the world glom as if in existential terror.
In something of an afterthought in the best annihilation of the ecomodernist program I’ve read this year, development sociologist Max Ajlexplains how new tech can indeed be used, but from the start must be folded into a recursively negotiated model of how we are to socially reproduce ourselves as a society:
“A second potential course of action is devoting as much research as possible into lessening the difficulty of the [agriculture] labour involved, through—of course!—technology. In both [what is now capital’s] core and periphery, how much farming will be mechanized and, more importantly, which tasks should not be mechanized remain open questions. So, too, is the meaning of mechanization, and what kinds of tools can spare labour without excess energy-intensive extraction. How much we can replace hard labour with constant attention through human presence and careful intervention in natural cycles is another open question.”
describing a novel municipal food program in Brazil that central planning, without
a single robot deployed, scaled
up to feeding hundreds of thousands from forest-adjacent farm to city table,
political agroecologist Jahi Chappell suggested our social
institutions can be as unworldly an advance as any handheld gadget:
“The truth is that the future will be based not on the promises of whiz-bang technology, but on the more mundane features of the decisions our societies make about what we will do, how we will do it, and who will get to decide. That is, our future fates are based on our institutions. ‘Institutions,’ as a technical term, refers to the rules prevalent in a society. They are essentially about how we run our lives individually and collectively, and the many conscious, and unconscious, mechanics underneath the surface. Our ancestors would likely be just as shocked at these institutional foundations of our current societies as they would be at the tools and technology that support them. Institutions, in this way, are as much the stuff of sci-ﬁ fantasy as bleeding-edge plant breeding techniques and the Dick Tracy wrist-radio/watches some of us now wear on our wrists.”
It’s as if, as environmental humanities scholar Anthony Galluzzo posted recently, humanity, not tech is—ha—the engine of history. Again, it’ll be people, not science alone, environmental scientist Erle Ellis wrote in another Times op-ed, who’ll save us from ecological collapse.
Tech bros win-winning the world away
So what to make of this fringe of Marxian tech bros with outsized access Chappell and Galluzzo dubbed the Jetsonian Left, beyond its recapitulating industry’s penchant for finding due cause in objects, rather than in an ecosocial scope capital can’t easily flip into commodities?
Given the generic corporate marketing in what presents itself as anti-capitalist doctrine, one of the few explanations that lines up the albeit scattered dots is that Bastani and his fellow Prometheans see something they like of themselves in their bourgeois enemies. It may explain in part why Bastani, hog-tying himself this way, got his ass whipped on TV by a doddering foursome of system apologists.
And capital, so skilled at such flattery, is happy to oblige. By historian Joseph Fracchia’s account, Marx saw materialism outside merely the “stuff” of the world. Capital also deploys innovations in the social and the semiotic—through many of Chappell’s institutions it’s captured—to help organize production and the greater cultural environment in its favor.
The resulting dynamics now playing out are textbook. Reformists, observed historian Doug Greene on Facebook, are demanding revolutionaries skip what was the centennial of an outdated communist revolution. Also, they continue, “‘We should adapt the exciting ideas of [long-dead social democrat] Karl Kautsky!‘”
When the spectre of revolution re-emerges—percolating today from the Yellow Vests to Sudan and it seems increasingly underneath elsewhere—there’s always room for Leftists who propose more of the establishment as the radical path forward. It’s a road their capitalist allies and even out-and-out employers—Galluzzo points out Jacobin author Leigh Phillips works for the nuclear industry—would never let them anywhere near commandeering.
With capitalists scared sleepless by revolution, redwashing has re-emerged.
the customer-centric talent that capital seeks, showing up as if incarnating an epochal
process, is now offering to scale up these win-win deliverables. Just six
months ago, his Fully Automated
manuscript already in press at Verso, Bastani tweeted:
“I’m a big fan of capitalism from 1800-1980. It’s just now that record is facing serious, sustained, and arguably secular challenges.“
Just now, mind you. After Native American genocide, Black slavery, Victorian holocausts, child labour, the Great Depression and Nazi Germany, Vietnam and fifty years of other proxy wars, and environmental ruination across the global South. “Challenges,” he calls them, as if on spec, pitching some Silicon Valley moneybags. Because, yeah, those guys, biohacking their computer selves to liver failure or dying in line at the Mount Everest gift shop, should arbitrate the world’s next steps.
The automation pursued out of such base appeals may be increasing in extent and luxury, but there’s little communist about it. People and the planet deserve far better.
We briefly mentioned the problem of hierarchy as the shared root of many systems of oppression in our first column two weeks ago. In this article, we want to expand on the meaning of hierarchy—a system of obedience and command backed by the threat of force—and ground it in history. If we are to understand what we face and avoid reproducing it in building a new society, the social roots of hierarchy deserve a more thorough exploration.
In Western society, there are two prominent ‘origin stories.’ One is that of the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all,’ in which humans are innately vicious and violent, and only the introduction of strong authority could keep people’s natural state in check.
The other story is that prior to the existence of civilizations, humans lived in egalitarian and mostly peaceful bands enjoying the natural abundance of nature. In this version, it was only with the development of agriculture and centralized societies that we fell from grace and became the violent and hierarchical creatures we are today.
The destruction of our environment is not some natural, vicious drive of humanity, but something that emerges from the very inequalities created by hierarchy.
Both stories share an assumption that pre-civilization humans can be painted with a broad brush, and that hierarchy – whether good or bad – can be traced to a natural evolution point in human history.
Thinkers like Rousseau, Spinoza, and Hegel weren’t satisfied with the idea that hierarchy is natural. They asserted that humans have the capacity to be either hierarchical or egalitarian, depending on history and existing social structures, and that human beings are dynamic and not static: there is no single human nature.
The anthropological record
Recent anthropological work appears to prove the truth of this more nuanced perspective on the history of hierarchy in human society.
David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that the story isn’t so simple as anthropology’s old tale of roving communal egalitarian bands, followed by hierarchical agricultural societies.
In fact, they explain, extraordinarily diverse social orders often shifted between very hierarchical and more communal social structures over time, even within a single year.
Throughout human history – this newer evidence suggests – we were neither ‘noble savages’ nor victims of a violent chaos. Even the notion that there is a traceable origin point of hierarchy has been challenged, because this variance in social structure appears to have lasted beyond the development of agriculture and cities; many early cities with advanced infrastructure were composed of apparently classless societies.
So how do we explain the near ubiquitous existence of hierarchical political forms today? Graeber and Wengrow state that despite the early diversity of societal structures – with the formation of the first states around 5,000 years ago – hierarchy became the reigning social order and remains so to this day.
The emergence of the state was characterized by a monopoly on violence, which also allowed surplus to be forcibly concentrated in the hands of a small elite. With this concentration of wealth came tools of violence and control: kings, priesthoods, armies.
With their control over surplus came private property and the need to protect it; from private property came inheritance, and patriarchy as a mechanism to assert ownership of property across generations, through women’s servitude and control over their reproduction.
Understanding the history of domination
The Marxist and anarchist traditions have long worked to explain how these historical transformations calcified inequality and domination, how such class societies have developed over time, and how we can transcend these dynamics into a new society of freedom.
Marxists theorised that the first class societies emerged out of “primitive communism” through a new division of labour and an agricultural surplus that could sustain an idle ruling class. In Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Friedrich Engels developed the theory of patriarchy’s origin in private property.
Marx himself focused on the shift from feudalism to the new class structure of capitalism: an unequal relationship between the owning class and the working class. The bourgeoisie owned the factories, and the proletariat provided their labour.
We know that we must address hierarchy in all its forms—not just capitalism and the state, but also racism, patriarchy, and other systems created by unequal divides among humans, and between humans and the many others with whom we share our common home.
None of this was a natural phenomenon: it was through a specific historical development that modern tools of control emerged, and it was only by understanding the nature of this hierarchical relationship between two classes that we could collectively undo hierarchy and build an egalitarian world.
For the first century of Marxist thought on class society, however, the connections between human exploitation and environmental exploitation remained largely unexplored.
In the mid-20th century, Murray Bookchin, an anarchist theorist and former Marxist, began to develop a framework called social ecology as a way to understand how environmental disaster has its origins in hierarchy as well.
Social ecology recognizes that ecological problems are at root social problems. The destruction of our environment is not some natural, vicious drive of humanity, but something that emerges from the very inequalities created by hierarchy.
We have always adapted nature to our needs, but the destruction of our common home is always against our common interests, and people who survive by their knowledge of their ecosystem are rarely inclined to destabilise it.
Hierarchy creates a class at the top with particular interests of its own, distinct from those of the rest of human society and the environment from which they emerge, and with the power to pursue those interests against the will of those below.
Hierarchy thus facilitates environmental destruction by allowing a small group of elites to pursue their own wealth through exploiting both lower human classes and the rest of nature without accountability or consequences (at least not for them). Bookchin also argued that it was through the domination of one another that we could even conceive of striving to dominate nature.
Since the dawn of early states and classes, elites have marshalled common resources for interstate conflict and enrichment, proliferating slavery, warring armies, and monuments to their conquests. It is no coincidence that Gilgamesh, recorded history’s first mythic hero, was both the king of one of the world’s first states and the destroyer of great cedar forests.
From the city-states of Sumer and the independent emergence of permanently unequal societies in other parts of the world, conquest spread new orders of domination globally, to the detriment of the entire web of life.
Capitalism is simply the most recent form of this basic dynamic. Capitalism and its structural imperative for growth are fundamentally incompatible with ecological sustainability.
And without economic democracy, the vast majority of people who do not own capital have no power to change this course within the present system. Many ecosocialists recognise this, but what social ecology brings to the table is the understanding that hierarchy itself is the enemy of our relationship with nature and the rest of the living world.
Social ecology and our present crisis
Unequal social conditions created by hierarchy are not the only conditions under which ecological destruction can take place, but they make it assured.
Take climate change as a contemporary example—in the face of clear evidence that the fossil fuel economy is strangling our collective future, a tiny, powerful elite is nonetheless able to decide again and again to extract and burn for private profit.
The poorest people on earth have played little to no role in causing climate change, but they will bear the worst of desertification, rising seas, and ever more powerful storms.
The power of the rich over the poor is the only way this is possible. Social ecology insists that we cannot understand the climate crisis through reference to what ‘humanity’ is doing to the earth, for humanity is not a united or uniform actor. The particular social order which gives some of us power over the rest drives our unfolding catastrophe.
If the 7.6 billion people on the planet had equal power to democratically determine our common future and hold one another accountable for the impacts of our actions, we would not be pursuing more oil in the face of certain destruction and mass death. Only true democracy can get to the root of the environmental crisis, and put a stop to it.
Social ecology is useful not only as a perspective on the origins of our present crises, but for charting a path towards real solutions.
If the problem is hierarchy, rather than a few bad actors or industries, then band-aid policies like carbon trading, individual consumer purity, and green technology are revealed for what they are—surface-level tinkering that will not alter the basic structures of our society that are eroding the biosphere.
Even if technological advances were somehow able to profitably transition us to a post-carbon economy, rapacious capitalist growth would still outstrip the earth’s carrying capacity and precipitate global ecological collapse. Nothing short of a radical restructuring of our economic and political systems will suffice.
What might this restructuring look like? How, as organisers, thinkers, and revolutionaries, can we begin to move toward such a transition?
We know that we must address hierarchy in all its forms—not just capitalism and the state, but also racism, patriarchy, and other systems created by unequal divides among humans, and between humans and the many others with whom we share our common home. Guided by hierarchy as the central problem, we can start building new tools for a democratic and ecological society.
Throughout this series, we will be digging deeper into that democracy toolbox. We will examine new institutional forms of economy and politics that we can begin to nurture in civil society, and explore their histories and possibilities.
Above all, we will be sketching the outlines of a new political framework for transforming all of society, building from below on the cooperative and democratic community projects of ordinary people. Imagining utopian alternatives is important, but what our movements need is a path to get there.
The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organisers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organisations that can build a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. We are fighting for a better world by creating institutions of participatory democracy and the solidarity economy through community organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. Twitter: @SymbiosisRev