Monday, March 23, 2009

The world is never over!

At zunguzungu, Aaron Bady offers a useful reminder for those of us, like myself, who have a tendency to give occasional vent to our apocalyptic jones:
The world is never over! The “deckchairs on the Titanic” metaphor is a nice way to belittle people who prefer to rearrange deckchairs rather than address the iceberg, but the world is not a ship, ontologically defined by whether it is sinking or floating; the world is a place in which history has a way of going forward, even if those living in it have difficulty imagining how.

[. . .] Life always goes on, somehow, and maybe badly, but the character and dynamism of its continuity is of profound importance for those of us who want to live in the future.
I should say that I intend my catastrophic comments here as a little different than what Aaron is talking about. He is posting in response to Brad DeLong's semi-apocalyptic outburst about the Geithner Plan. DeLong cannot imagine the world working differently (perhaps, because it simply shouldn't--he might say doesn't, can't--work otherwise) (I don't pay too much attention to DeLong, usually, since he first came to my attention some years ago for his stupid attack on Chomsky; his more recent attack on David Harvey didn't help matters (latter link via)--Harvey commented to that, and followed up here). For my part, I'm trying to imagine the world being otherwise than it is, both ideally (how I would like it to be or think it ought to be) and in the reality in which we might find ourselves in the coming years or decades (how I think we might be able to live in such an eventuality). In addition, my desire to try to figure out a way to live differently pre-dates the actuality of this particular crisis. Admittedly, my ability to imagine is severely hampered by the current system itself and my position within it. The problem is huge, the task before us enormous.

Aaron closes his post by observing that everything he's read tells him
that we do live in a world economic system that’s just lost all four engines. But the difference between a controlled crash-landing, where most of the passengers have a good chance of survival, and pretending that the engines still work (because the alternative is too dire to imagine) is extremely important, and needs to part of this discussion. To ignore it would be stupid, almost suicidal. Or rather, it’s a kind of thinking that those members of our society equipped with parachutes are more likely to indulge in, isn’t it? They can afford the fallacy. They’re not the ones flying coach.
This, for me, is the key thing. It appears that the capitalist system, which necessarily undergoes periodic crises, may have entered its terminal crisis. This could mean any number of things, of course. When we factor in environmental limitations (the barely yet registered effects of global warming) and whatever the truth may be about the remaining availability of oil, the system, in one way or another, could and likely will limp on, more and more destructively, for decades. The very rich are not likely to be as negatively affected by such an increasingly unstable system. But the rest of us are going to need to make potentially radical adjustments in how we live, and those adjustments can be very painful indeed, or a lot less painful, depending on how we respond collectively to the problems. In my view, efforts at re-localization are crucially important ways in which we can make that crash turn into a softer landing. Hence the focus on food.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Ahoy, Richard! I posted a slightly expanded version of that post over at Cliopatria, as it happens. I've enjoyed your food posts, too, and it does seem like the thing to be thinking about right now (in fact, I live in Berkeley, and have actually touched the hem of Michael Pollan's garment). In terms of rhetoric, it seems like it's a question that needs to get detached from its apocalyptic framing: the question is not one of grinding corn on the windshields of abandoned cars in Mad Max land, but of recovering and strengthening the aspects of our food economy that will survive downturns like this, less a problem of finding ways to detaching food production from the economy completely than of reshaping the food economy so that it survives downturns.

Which is why phrases like "terminal crisis" leave me a bit flat; certainly something fundamental is changing, but something fundamental changed in 1930 too, and in 1870's, etc; "capitalism" is such a protean term that something capitalist will survive, even if it isn't anything recognizably similar to what we're blessed with now. Zimbabwe's economy no longer exists in all sorts of ways, but it hasn't ceased to be capitalist, it's simply became a radically different kind of economy, radically differently capitalist. At which point, of course, "capitalism" is clearly not the best term of art to use; to say that Zimbabwe is still capitalist says very little, just as it says very little to imagine a post-capitalist future here (wherever that may be).

Perhaps it's not with you I'm arguing this point, come to think of it, but I've heard enough people welcome the coming apocalypse as a harbinger of post-capitalism to be wary of that line of reasoning.