Saving the Future

Though in my university days I was no more of a party person than I am now, I had friends with other tastes. Visiting one on a morning many years ago, I found him blearily looking for traces of furniture amid the mess he and some others had generated through a long night. “I feel like calling Buildings and Grounds,” he moaned, “and telling them, ‘We’re finished with this room. Could you please send us another?'”

From all I’ve read, this was the kind of university life George W. Bush had. And I can easily believe it. I can see his request coming any day now: We’re finished with this world. Please send us another. . . .

It’s no secret that much of the fundamentalist support for Israel stems from the belief that until the Jews are gathered in the land of Israel Jesus won’t return. And we know that among Bush’s advisers and confidants there are many evangelicals with the gleam of the apocalypse in their eyes. Is it so unreasonable that they would deliberately encourage him in the creation of insoluble problems, thereby compelling the Almighty to intervene?

It’s a tempting explanation. The calamity in Louisiana has temporarily shamed a previously unshameable administration, with Bush even coming close to acknowledging that public policy discriminates by race. But the same speech made it clear by its silence that the administration will do nothing about the very unnatural changes that led to this supposedly natural disaster — not only global warming but the manhandling of the Mississippi in the name of commercial shipping interests that has eaten up hundreds of miles of coastal marsh by pumping silt far out into the Gulf of Mexico. So much land has vanished that between 1965 and 2001 the Gulf shore moved 20 miles closer to New Orleans; and over the past century the city has sunk by three feet.

The way Karl Rove rebuilds New Orleans will no doubt end up further disenfranchising the poor and enhancing the net worth of the rich. In a larger sense, though, it’s beside the point. No new building and no levee reconstruction can make up for the constant washing away of the state of Louisiana. We’re fighting the self-destructive logic of capitalism without fighting capitalism itself — and that’s a losing battle.

New Orleans as a picturesque ruin is a painful thought, but it’s very minor compared to life in Baghdad. We on the Left are constantly prodded to come up with a solution to the bloody horror of today’s Iraq; “Well, what would you do?” defenders of Bush are likely to ask. I’d love to have an answer. I doubt that one exists.

Iraq is like Katrina. It’s not that we had no warning. In December of 2001, I posted a piece about Iraq on a web site now defunct, concluding that a US invasion would lead to “anarchy and loss of central control: in other words, another Afghanistan.” I can’t claim to be an expert or have prophetic insight; you had to be blind to the obvious to reach any other conclusion.

And yet our leaders bore on, with the press and the nominal opposition obediently in line, and opened a very large and well-stocked Pandora’s box. Right now the Iraqi people are bearing the worst of this already unimaginable suffering; it’s hard to read Baghdad Burning, the eloquent blog of a young, upper-middle-class Sunni woman who writes about her family and the disappearance of her old life, without crying. It’s very likely that her suffering, already multiplied by the millions, will spread throughout the region; and who knows where it will end?

Something very similar is happening, quite differently, in the Occupied Territories. Sharon’s insistence on “creating facts” — an Israeli fantasy since the days of Moshe Dayan that is clearly shared by Bush — is forging a stalemate that will only increase tensions until they are uncontrollable. The images of Palestinians squeezing into Egypt through holes in a fence to go shopping or visit relatives confirms that the vaunted Israeli withdrawal was meant to turn Gaza into a giant prison, like New York City in John Carpenter’s film.

Is it necessary to go on? To list the disasters we are not only failing to avert but actively courting — the collapse of the Greenland ice cap, the melting of permafrost, the impending peak of oil production and (a few decades later, at best) of natural gas production? The seemingly unstoppable pillage of the poor in the name of the market, the gutting of what little of the welfare state social democratic parties in Europe were able to snatch from their Faustian bargain with capital? To do so risks despondency.

The one incontestably wrong thing that Karl Marx wrote was that humanity only sets itself such tasks as it can solve. He forgot that capital and its defenders might be able to buy off its opponents until its logic had proceeded too far to be defeated.

Surely it is not too late. There is suffering we cannot end, but there is still a future to be rescued. Yet so much needs to be done. American political discourse is so emaciated that “capitalism” barely registers as a specific phenomenon; like reading and writing in Dogberry‘s analysis (a favorite of Slavoj Zizek‘s), it comes by nature. Seeing Tony Blair masquerade as a social democrat tells us that things in Europe are not much better.

What can we do? First off, we need to make capitalism visible again in mainstream discourse. Most people have no inkling that they live within a system — let alone what that system does. We need to explain the events of people’s lives so that their hidden roots become obvious. We need to do this over and over, in innumerable different ways, until people in the mainstream can see that this is the world capital makes and that alternatives exist.

In other words, we need to cast the flat and oppressive world of capital into perspective — the perspective of the long history of egalitarian human communities, of the mutual support and caring that has been evicted from public life by being stigmatized as a “female” preoccupation, of all the attempts at human liberation in the world’s bloody past and all those of today. To see capitalism as only one of many different ways of living is to see that it must be stopped.

And we can’t give up. After all, our despair is their best weapon.

Michael Steinberg is the author of The Fiction of a Thinkable World: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism published this year by Monthly Review Press and essays in professional journals in history, music, and law. He and his wife Loret, a photographer and professor of documentary photography, live in Rochester, New York, under the supervision of two domestic medium-hair cats. He will give a reading from his book on Thursday, October 6, 2005, at Robin’s Book Store (108 South 13th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107 — Tel: 215-735-9600).