One of the Left’s great challenges is to understand when the great watershed of change is upon people and seize the time. Racism, sexism, inequality, and uncertain futures have weighed heavily on the conscience of many a movement. For every great moment, hundreds of crushing defeats never to be remembered are handed down. Once in a rare moon, stunning defeats like the 1965 Selma to Montgomery demonstrations or the Long March galvanize participants and become iconic — something history recalls as a moral victory that alters the fates of those involved. But how often does that happen? It’s much more seldom than you’d think.
The expectation of sure and monumental societal shifts is not isolated to progressives. The Right has more than its share of individuals who believe in the surety of change. In some alternate, albeit anecdotal, universe, Left and Right, extreme flavors in particular, share a view that society, whether through greed, excess, loss of the moral barometer, or any number of factors, has lost its way and its people need to wake up to that reality. In some cases, these subcultures of doom can shake people from slumber and even influence their outcomes. No one will probably ever know how much blood committed people have spilled for the sake of change, either to spark it or stop it.
In Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth (PM Press, 2012), James Davis, Sasha Lilley, David McNally, and Eddie Yuen in four essays beautifully plumb the history of these hopes, even mad ones. Part history lesson, part ideological soul searching, Catastrophism is a dense yet enthralling attempt to not only understand what brings Left and Right to believe in the inevitability of renewal, but also to take apart these visions in hopes of educating readers about what true social change means and why nothing can truly replace mass grassroots organizing.
It is not hard to figure out where even well-adjusted people adopt the idea of the certainty of social collapse. Generations upon generations of popular culture has normalized the notion that the world is folding and that it is now on the shoulders of a few brave souls to battle for the future. It’s not just the wildly popular Christian Left Behind series to latch onto this storyline. You’d be hard pressed to not find in the cultural landscape images of a dying world, which is a plot device in so many books, films, and television serials. McNally reminds readers that horrific imagery has been for years a harbinger of public sentiment, especially a metaphor for what people fear most. With Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero famously tapped into the zombie for a cultural criticism of capitalism as inherently cannibalistic. The monsters of modern film seem numbingly banal, with their assorted social awkwardness, relationship problems, and lusts, and yet they still play the same cultural functions as classic monsters like vampires. The average American is plunged each day into this world where conflict, death, and chaos are at every turn; Hollywood has merely found a way to profit. The make-believe world, McNally says, masks real worries of neoliberalism, austerity, and similar horrors which now rule our daily lives.
Themes of fictional wars against the undead pock our imaginations and, increasingly, the political intelligence of the public. The far right, as Davis investigates, has been virtually sculpted by beliefs in social apocalypse for nearly a century or more. As the first Roman Catholic presidential nominee, Al Smith’s losing bid for president in 1928 is widely credited by historians to be in part due to worries of conservative Christians that the White House would be controlled by the Pope. Later, Minister Arno C. Gaebelein fought the New Deal, believing it was a cover for Russian Communism and, under that, Satan himself aiming to make all people his loyal servants. Such ideas have endured to this very day, where the Pat Buchanans and Billy Grahams of the scene see the specter of one world government poised to vanquish traditional Christianity at any moment. The Obama Administration has been a popular target for a spectrum of conservatives, from disgraced pundit Dinesh D’Souza to Texas conspiracy guru Alex Jones, as the iron first ready to seize true Americans’ freedoms. With such storm troopers apt to destroy life as we know it, ideologies like dominionism, which holds that natural resources were offered to humanity by God for its use and their exhaustion will hasten Christ’s return, find a large and influential audience. Farfetched as they sound, such concepts on the Right are plentiful.
Sadly, such fear mongering has created an especially nasty political class with a consistent message: those who are different than you are out to take what is white America’s, and it’s time to fight. California Republican Brian Bilbray forecast future terrorists “coming in on a Latin name,” while anti-immigrant activists like John Tanton use colorful rhetoric to suggest the Third World is ready to pounce on the West’s bounty. As the recent conviction of 33-year-old white nationalist Anders Breivik suggests, some are willing to viciously “defend themselves” from their imagined multicultural menace. “This growth in extremism has been aided by mainstream media figures and politicians who have used their platforms to . . . spread the kind of paranoid conspiracy theories on which militia groups thrive,” the Southern Poverty Law Center notes in its survey of far right extremists.
Lilley, co-host of radio program Against the Grain, and Yuen take on the Left’s fascination with catastrophe, and do so incisively. Marxists and anarchists of many stripes have opined that capitalism is bound to fail, though such claims misread capitalism’s changeability and underestimate the Left’s need to out-organize the powerful. Yet in the last half century, clandestine U.S. groups like the Weather Underground Organization and the Earth Liberation Front, with hopes of kicking off a revolution with brash expressions of direct action, ended up winning little to nothing. In numerous cases, these erstwhile movements hoping for mass revolt instead disconnected themselves from that potential in their misunderstanding of contemporary politics. Anti-civilization anarchism, which speaks of destroying enemies and dismantling the infrastructure, even if it means people die as a result, surely sounds insane to most. In other circles, the rise of repression, Nativism, financial collapse, and political corruption is hailed as a harbinger of revolutionary change, that greater suffering ripens the potential for an uprising. Catastrophism contends no result should be considered automatic. Marx’s theory of crisis, Lilley reminds readers, did not depend on capitalism’s breakdown. Theorist Anton Pannekoek expanded on this view by positing that the matter was defeating capitalism in spite of its durability not because of the supposed inevitably of its failure.
Lilley refuses to legitimize the point of view of liberals who regard the Left as well as the Right with condescension, equating all left-wing political theories with catastrophism and tsking them away as outgrowths of extremism. What about the election cycle-driven liberal catatrophism that demands progressives set aside their principles or else right-wing candidates could spell disaster for millions? Among the liberal crowd, defeating conservatives is a rallying cry that is more important than food, education, justice, and virtually every other core value. “Such fear-mongering in the service of the status quo reaches its apex with perennial liberal scares about impending fascism,” Lilley writes. “Such scares reached a fever pitch after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, when various liberals decided that the Constitution had been ripped up, replaced by a dictatorship.”
Although consciously not a dictionary of strategies, Catastrophism‘s authors are clear on what does not work — “and what works at great cost.” The book is best when exploring political areas without easy answers. It is certain to spark the debate its authors intended, and perhaps create conversations about the need for the kind of organizing that must happen to initiate the diverse social justice agenda many progressives profess to want.
Ernesto Aguilar may be contacted at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.