Post-Pandemic Melancholia . . . Same As It Ever Was?

First days of August on the beach in Mexico, eating coconut pie, pretty far from melancholic!

Dark times will always spur retrospection, but we need to look backwards not simply to track either progress or decline but rather to open our eyes wider to the crosscurrents, contradictions, and eerie resonances of history. (p. 18, Up From the Depths: Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford, and Rediscovery in Dark Times, by Aaron Sachs, 2022)

The summer has passed! Seems like it was just starting and already it’s September. I went to Mexico for two weeks in August. Shaping SF wrapped up its programming in June and then I had a bay cruise to give on July 30, which provided the surprise bonus of a trip to the 14th floor of the Fontana Towers for a post-cruise drink. We also planned 19 events for the Fall to continue our 25th anniversary celebration of Shaping San Francisco. I spent most of June and July knocking 60,000 words out of my novel, When Shells Crumble, and then sent it off to Spuyten Duyvil right before I left for Mexico. Tod there sent back a finished paperback proof for me to further edit and that’s taken up the past few weeks of August. The good news is that we are publishing it in time for me to present it at the annual Howard Zinn Bookfair at the Valencia Street City College campus on Sunday, December 3! Woohoo! Not a lot of time for blogging in the midst of all these other activities.

I keep reading though, all sorts of interesting books. I’ll get to some of them in subsequent posts. I’ve become a huge fan of Nnedi Okorafor, the Nigerian-American science fiction writer. Lagoon, Who Fears Death, The Book of Phoenix, Noor, all fantastic novels. If you haven’t discovered her yet, don’t hesitate!

I found a series of interesting “graffiti stencils” on fabric stapled on poles in the Castro in June… anonymously produced.

I had to laugh when the New York Times ran a feature on Japanese Marxist professor Kohei Saito, author of Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism a couple of weeks ago. I had just finished reading it (the British edition) and in the article the writers claimed the book, which has sold 500,000 copies in Japan, hasn’t yet been translated to English even though it was published in the UK at the beginning of the year. (The U.S. version is coming out some time in January, under the title Slow Down.) It is actually one of the most engaging and intelligent Marxist books I’ve read in a long time. I highly recommend it.

If you’ve spent much time around Marxism and the generally contentious intellectual debates that swirl around the various interpretations of it, you’ll be surprised by this new book. It is a fresh reading that supercedes the tired Marxists who treat the body of thought as a dogma that must be parsed and then followed, or the anti-communists who completely reject it due to the authoritarian political systems that claimed the banner of Marxism. It’s hardly novel to reject that binary. Plenty of radical thinkers have rejected the vulgar Marxism-Leninism espoused by the Soviet Union and its true believers (including the Trotskyist, Maoist, and Fidelista variants) to theorize about an “autonomous Marxism” that re-centers the working class and its own activities at the heart of the class struggle that drives capitalism (as much or more than capital’s internal drive to expand value). Still others have embraced Marx’s critique of capitalism as an indispensable tool, but one sorely lacking in prescriptive value. I suppose I’ve fallen into that last category since several decades ago.

Kevin B. Anderson published Marx at the Margins in 2010 and I blogged about it along with some other important books here a few years ago. Anderson is cited by Saito as one of the scholars who, like him, delved into Marx’s untranslated notebooks from the last years of his life. Anderson was one of the scholars who began the process of rethinking Marx’s ideas about race and class, about the inevitability of going through a capitalist stage on the way to socialism, and the possibilities that pre-capitalist societies have social forms that might be the basis for a post-capitalist future.

Saito has dived deep into Marx’s notebooks from his last fifteen years (post publication of Capital Volume I in 1864), notebooks that have only been published in Germany in the 21st century after being ignored and forgotten since the late 19th century. Saito fastens on the notion of the ‘metabolic rift’ that Marx wrote a good deal about and was likely trying to include in his version of what ultimately became Capital Vol. III.

… he recognized that the particularities of pre-capitalist metabolism between humans and nature might be the source of vitality of certain rural communes. Compared to the metabolic rift created by capitalist production, these communes contain elements of economic superiority… p. 65

Marx was examining the problem of modern agriculture that depletes the soil to produce surpluses to deliver to cities where workers consume the food only to issue vast amounts of waste that pollute local waterways and fail to return nutrients to the land. The further he looked into it, the more his thinking began to take on distinctly modern ecological sensibilities. Saito describes his new contribution to our understanding of Marx’s evolving thinking:

This chapter goes further than previous literature by concretely depicting the late Marx’s vision of post-capitalist society after he abandoned Eurocentrism and Prometheanism in the 1870s. In finally discarding both ethnocentrism and productivism, Marx abandoned his earlier scheme of historical materialism. It was not an easy task for him. His worldview was in crisis. In this sense, Marx’s intensive research in his last years was a desperate attempt to reconstruct and reformulate his materialist conception of history from an entirely new perspective, resulting in a radically different conception of the alternative society.

In short, Marx’s final vision of an alternative society can be developed only based upon a full synthesis of Marx’s engagement with political economy, ecology and pre-capitalist societies in the last 15 years of his life. By carefully investigating the reason why he had to study pre-capitalist socities and natural sciences at the same time, a new and surprising possibility of interpreting Marx’s letter to Zasulich emerges: Marx ultimately became a degrowth communist. p. 173

Saito is convinced that Marx’s final intellectual project turned him away from the early certainties of the Communist Manifesto and even his arguments in his Grundrisse notebooks and later in the first edition of Capital. Anderson too notes that Marx’s edits to the 3rd French edition of Capital Vol. I broke with the earlier claims of universality for the analysis of capitalist development, refocusing it on Western Europe proper. Saito finds much evidence for Marx’s growing appreciation for pre-capitalist social forms in his late research, but he seems most excited by the ecological turn in Marx’s work:

with his growing interest in ecology, Marx came to see the plunder of the natural environment as a manifestation of the central contradiction of capitalism. He consciously reflected on the irrationality of the development of the productive forces of capital, which strengthens the robbery praxis and deepens the metabolic rift on a global scale. Marx also studied radically different ways of social organization of metabolic interaction between humans and nature in precapitalist and non-Western societies from an ecological perspective. p. 200

As someone who came of age in the later 1970s deeply immersed in the burgeoning ecological sensibilities of the time, this is startlingly relevant. My original study of Marx at SF State in 1978 was at the time revelatory and exciting. But it always felt separated from the ecological insights that had become commonplace by then. I spent the first half of 1978 canvassing for Citizens for a Better Environment, going door to door throughout the Bay Area to raise money and awareness of acid rain, toxic waste, the (still) unsolvable problem of nuclear waste and radioactive contamination, and so on. This was when sewage treatment was just beginning in earnest and the long polluted San Francisco Bay was beginning to show signs of life (thanks to the 1971 federal Clean Water Act). Annual bouts of air pollution were increasingly severe, taking on Los Angeles-like dimensions. It was easy to connect with people on their suburban and city doorsteps about the need to alter how we were making our world together. I’ve often thought nothing radicalized me like that experience—a chance to talk to thousands of people in their homes about their everyday lives, their jobs, their varying degrees of awareness about the role of their own work in producing the ecological dramas I was detailing, etc. It was what drove me back to college and an urgent desire to read Capital!

That was 45 years ago! Producing local history for the last quarter century, I’ve spent a good deal of my self-directed intellectual time in reading about history, historiography, and especially luxuriating in the dozens of amazing books published in the 21st century covering the long-suppressed histories of slavery, Indian genocide, and the harsh truths of the roots of the United States as a product of settler colonialism. The shockingly stupid reaction by the book-banners and “anti-woke” school boards would be amusing if it wasn’t finding a way to sustain and extend itself even now. But there’s no way they can get the toothpaste back in the tube. There’s just too much dense scholarship on the role of slavery in providing the foundation for the capitalist take-off of the mid-19th century. There’s now way too much scholarship on the naked brutality of white settlers in decimating countless populations of indigenous North Americans to ever allow reassuring “cowboys-and-Indians” or “pioneers in the wilderness” stories to go uncontested again.

At the top of this post I quoted Aaron Sachs fantastic book Up From the Depths, juxtaposing Herman Melville and Lewis Mumford, a book I serendipitously found on the shelf at City Lights a few months back. I have long been a huge fan of Moby Dick and more recently I read Typee, Melville’s early novel of his experience on a “cannibal-infested” tropical South Sea island. And many of Lewis Mumford’s books have been on my shelf for decades even if I must sheepishly admit that I haven’t found time to read them. But his ideas have seeped into my worldview through osmosis, his being quoted in countless places and having left a lasting influence on a lot of critics of unbridled technological fetishism. I was excited to read Sachs’ brilliant interweaving of these two critics of modern life, separated by decades, but each facing their own dark ages—Melville before, during, and after the Civil War and then living his final years as an embittered witness ofthe Gilded Age (a time much like our own). Mumford was deeply unsettled by the horrors of World War I and lived through the commercial and technological frenzy of the 1920s that led to the Depression and the rise of fascism in the 1930s. Mumford actually lived all the way to 1990 when he died at 95!

Also in the Castro.

Here we are at the suddenly re-emergent Tulare Lake at the end of May.

An example of the right-wing madness posted all over the place in the southern Central Valley. Talk about cult thinking!

Melville’s disdain for the rising tide of mediocrity and men on the make was apparent in his novels, but Sachs finds quotes that bring it home:

Again and again, Melville acknowledged that America had never been Great, but the Revolution had produced not a promising democratic republic but rather “an Anglo-American empire based upon the systematic degradation of man.” (p. 24) … the Era of Reconstruction faded into the Gilded Age, a period that Melville found not terribly different from what had come before. “There seems to be no calamity overtaking man,” he had written in 1849, “that can not be rendered merchantable.” (p. 29)

In the face of the contemporary assault on history and the unblinkered understandings of early American atrocities, it’s remarkable to find in this book about two great thinkers and writers of the past such clarity on the same issues:

Mumford understood that the United States was not an ideal refuge for those fleeing Europe: “I do not forget that the treatment of minorities in America, above all the treatment of the Indian and the Negro, has pages that have been as black as any that the fascists have written.” (p. 182)

I was drawn to this book partly because I feel a kinship with the idea of living through a Dark Ages. The brutal decades of American militarism that have plagued world history since WWII, slaughtering hundreds of thousands in the hypocritical name of liberty and democracy, is our context. More recently we have lived through a global pandemic that reinforced a deep polarization in the United States, but one that is also visible across the world. The head-spinning insanity that allows people to assert their independence of a virus (or in some cases, to insist that no such thing exists!), rejecting the apparently objective epidemiological science of transmission, interpenetration of human respiration and bodies, etc., is only matched by the equally head-spinning denial of the science explaining (and predicting) the unfolding climate catastrophe.

I thought this was an incredibly smart sink design, inside at the big bus terminal in Guadalajara.

The bus terminal looks almost like an airport or a mall!

It turns out that the roots of these parallel political positions can be attributed to deep philosophical traditions that continue to assert themselves in unexpected ways from both the far right and the far left. This is the terrain of a recent book called The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World by Benjamin Bratton (Verso Books: 2021). I brought up this book in a dinner conversation recently and was nearly chased from the table by old friends. Perhaps I presented it in overly simplistic terms, so I will try to give it its due here, without endorsing it. I found the book very provocative and I do believe Bratton raises questions that we ought to grapple with. I also share my dinner companions’ refusal to allow the author to assert a “we” in a world of capitalism and nations bent on its perpetuation. Most of his argument for a new enforceable globalism begs the question quite loudly of who exactly would be directing the gathering and analysis of the science that he (correctly) argues is possible now.

The architecture of a viable post-pandemic biopolitics therefore depends upon the scope, validity, and appropriateness of the data, all dependent on a sensing layer that has been well composed and which is able to enforce the implications of its models. So, what is the problem? It is not for lack of technological know-how or capacity. Instead, we have been using the technologies upon which such models depend for far less important things (advertising, arguing, the monetization of affectation, etc.), especially during the recent years of the surge of populist politics. Perhaps the use of these technologies in this way and the populist surge are even the same thing, as a false sense of subjectivity is constructed, curtailed, and amplified through the hyper-reductive format of the self-reinforcing individual user feed. In other words, the possibility of using these technologies for a positive biopolitics is prevented by the structuring demands of myopic capital drawing upon political and interface cultures of hyperindividuation. The problem is less with quantitative modeling itself than with what else we have asked it to do and why. That can and must change. But for that to happen, especially in the West, there needs to be a shift in the cultural valence of sensing and what is called “surveillance.” (p. 50)

New things are required, and foremost there is no way to realize a viable planetary post-pandemic biopolitics that does not include a redirection of the purposes of planetary-scale computation and automation. That shift must be not just toward optimizing its mechanisms but toward liberating public reason and collective intelligence. (p. 130)

I think this is an important argument. I agree that the blanket application of a negative “surveillance” to all forms of data gathering is pretty self-defeating. That said, I didn’t sign up for a California state-sponsored app that would track me and my contacts for Covid exposure. Perhaps that’s an example of what we should be agreeing to? I’m not ready to give away that level of observation to an automated database run by the state—neither California nor the U.S. I don’t trust them. I doubt you do either.

Bratton thrashes around in his short book. He makes some brilliantly funny points, and he also makes assertions that are plainly wrong (mischaracterizing Silvia Federici’s call for “re-enchantment” as a call to revive witchcraft couldn’t be further from the mark). Like previous critics of “folk politics” he easily skewers the “petit bourgeois Primitivism” of the all-organic neighborhood farmers market as a “cultural politics that symptomatically prioritizes ambiance at hand over equity at scale.” He smirks that “it is not possible for every piece of fruit to be handed to you in person,” while ignoring the tasteless, unripened lumps that pass for edible fruit in the industrialized supermarket. I guess these are comparisons and arguments we need to have.

I liked Bratton’s take-down of anti-mask arguments, and his intelligent insight that the “Karens” who have been revealed by cellphone videos are straddling two sides of the same wrong set of assumptions:

… the “technology refusal” culture of anti-mask politics is not arbitrary, but a positive affirmation of a worldview that predicates both sovereign individuality and cultural mythologies as truly more powerful and relevant than the biological reality bursting through the surface of those fictions. … a certain slander must be denied, which is that reality consists of a biochemical tumult that precedes and is indifferent to the symbolic prestige that might be built upon it. (p. 98)

It is revelatory that the character of “Karen” would come to be portrayed both by the person who invokes police powers to enforce her delusions of race and class privilege and also by the person who stands her ground against the imaginary police state asking her to not infect her fellow shoppers. They are the same person for a reason. (p. 100)

…the private vocality of subjective determinism cannot hold. The extreme subjectivism that asks you to “be the change you wish to see in the world,” as if internal mental states cause the external world to come into being, is not the solution to neoliberalism; it is its pinnacle. (p. 105)

Bratton, who notes in his intro that he was writing this at a thinktank in Moscow, Russia when the pandemic hit and sent everyone scurrying back to the boundaries of their passport, yearns for a different philosophy of science:

… when I think about what might have been, I can’t help but feel that in the years after Darwin but before World War II there is a missing philosopher who could have developed a different foundational philosophy of technology than the ones we actually received. What would they have written? What if it was a philosophy that incorporated, rather than refused, the interlocking implications of the then-booming epistemological earthquakes of evolutionary biology, geological time, comparative anthropology, industrial technology, microbiology and organic chemistry, into a systematic language as sonorous as it was materialist? The planetary biopolitics of the twenty-first century would perhaps be based on the work of this missing philosopher, but of course they can’t be because she or he unfortunately didn’t exist, at least as far as we know. Thus, a very different kind of “social Darwinism,” based on symbiosis as much as competition, and a recognition that rationality is animalian, is needed and will need to be invented and put to work. (p. 125)

Um, what about Lewis Mumford? Here’s Aaron Sachs’ summary of what Mumford was doing in the early 1930s, precisely the moment that Bratton can’t see an alternative philosopher of sufficient sophistication to integrate post-Darwinian science with an “animalian” rationality.

What the western world needed in the 1930s was to rediscover the glory of the ideal Eotechnic while also incorporating certain carefully selected aspects of modernity. This would not be a simple reversion to simpler times. Perhaps most importantly, the Neotechnic era would move toward what Mumford was already calling in The Brown Decades “a more biotechnic economy.” The new technical regime would replace coal and oil with solar and wind and water power, but also with electricity; and there would be plenty of new ecologically sensitive alloys and synthetics. Generally, Americans would “return to Nature” and embrace humanity’s “dynamic interpenetration” with the environment and organic processes. Buildings would be made from local materials, adapted to the land, woven into the local ecology. “Instead of simplifying the organic,” Mumford explained, “to make it intelligibly mechanical . . . , we have begun to complicate the mechanical, in order to make it more organic: therefore more effective, more harmonious with our living environment.” (p. 87)

… Mumford had been deeply influenced by the rise of ecological science in this period, and well before such environmentalist heroes as Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson he was insisting that social structures should be based on the simple truth that “every living creature is part of the general web of life . . . If each particular natural environment has its own balance, is there not perhaps an equivalent of this in culture?” (p. 139)

So here we have the missing link that might have produced a very different modern world if Mumford’s ideas had been more widely embraced. In fact, plenty of people did, and he enjoyed a long life of notable celebrity. But the world around him eschewed his generalist approach rooted in ecological sensibility and doubled-down on a balkanized, reductionist science that ultimately produced the cybernetic revolution as well as facilitating the descent into barbarism that the U.S. empire has embodied since WWII.

It turns out that Marx was investigating things from a similar angle as Mumford already in the 1880s right before his death.

By the 1880s Marx recognized that the persistent stability of communes without economic growth is the underlying foundation for realizing sustainable and egalitarian metabolic interaction between humans and nature… After 14 years of research, he concluded that sustainability and equality based on a steady-state economy is the source of power to resist capitalism, and it would be no wonder should Russian communes skip the capitalist stage to arrive at communism. It is also this kind of sustainability and equality of the steady-state economy that Western societies consciously need to ‘return’ as a higher form of the archaic type as a solution to the crisis of capitalism. In short, Marx’s last vision of post-capitalism is degrowth communism. … it was John Bellamy Foster, referring to Lewis Mumford’s ‘basic communism,’ who pointed to the need for the transition of high-income countries to a steady-state economy in order to avoid ecological breakdown. (Saito, p. 208-210)

I was tickled as I came to the conclusion of Saito’s brilliant rereading of Marx when he invoked David Graeber’s “Bullshit Jobs,” a concept I’ve been promulgating since 1981 in the pages of Processed World and beyond. But as he argues for degrowth communism, Saito makes the obvious point that

Without the market competition and endless pressure for capital accumulation, freely associated labor and cooperative production could possibly reduce the working day to just three-six hours… by cutting down unnecessary production in branches such advertisement, marketing, consulting and finance, it would also be possible to eliminate unnecessary labor and reduce excessive production as well as consumption. Emancipated from the constant exposure to advertisement, planned obsolescence and ceaseless market competition, there would emerge more room to autonomously ‘self-limit’ production and consumption. (p. 234-235)

The reduction of the working day was a linchpin of Marx’s arguments for human liberation. At this point, with a self-referential society that absurdly insists work is the culmination of one’s life and purpose, the movement to reduce and reconceptualize work is more needed than ever. Facing the certainty of future pandemics as well as the unfolding catastrophe we’ve inflicted on the planet’s climate and biodiversity, along with the persistence of modern forms of slavery and/or poverty for most of the world’s population, a radical change is long overdue. Benjamin Bratton argues for a geopolitics that is indistinguishable from geotechnology. That’s worrying to be sure. But he also has an important point in terms of how we conceptualize the world we might construct together. A devolution to pure localism is impossible and undesirable. But anything that reinforces the nation-states of the world, or the even more powerful corporations that dominate the world economy, is also a turn for the worse. Does Bratton escape this predicament?

It is not a matter of global omniscience or omnipotence, but of planetary competence. It is a call for a biogovernmentality that trains planetary-scale computation and modeling capacities on infrastructures for the remediation and rectification of a wounded species and its wounded habitat. (p. 143)

Can we?

In the Castro.

Thunderstorm ahead!

1 comment to Post-Pandemic Melancholia . . . Same As It Ever Was?

  • No one writes as well about these important matters, bringing out the kernels of true informed wonder in the otherwise impenetrable Foucaldian inert language of our present cadre of garret-living leftian thinker-scholars. (I have no interest in the word “subjectivity,” for example. There are definitely”bullshit jobs,” but there are also “bullshit phrases.”

    Of course “we” can’t” is the obvious answer to the last question. A “wounded species” can never change to become a different species. A “wounded species” can only live with its wounds, and then die. “Degrowth communism” would be fine for a different species, not for an ultrasocial one. If anyone still holds out some form of hope, then try watching the greenwashing corporate advertising during TV sports events.

    Wouldn’t Malcolm Harris’ “Palo Alto” be a natural book to complement your expert knowledge of SF?

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