Russell Brand has spoken. If there is one nice side effect here it is that everyone is talking about it. That includes me.
One thing I have seen come up recently in Brand’s material is the imperative need for a (political) revolution. In the modern left the current emphasis is on pending ecological catastrophes (with wild finger pointing at recent Act of God-esque weather phenomenon in the USA). There are also many Marx-attuned folks who are convinced that the 2008 financial downturn and the failure to turn it around for everyday people marks the beginning of the “Final Crisis” of capitalism. Brand takes lightly from both tendencies and says a revolution is necessary to avert total environmental and economic collapse. More broadly, this means catastrophe is inevitable and to dodge it we require a revolution.
Readers of “Tired of Progressivism” may think “Well, now you agree with this as you spent over a thousand words convincing me that things are getting shit.” Here I may disappoint. In particular there is nothing certain about a thorough-going revolution. Despite their deep divisions one thing anarchists and communists agreed on was how terrible conditions were and how certain revolution was. In the mid-1800s socialists were convinced one was right around the corner: “Twenty years” they said. Twenty years later it became forty years. By the Great Depression an exiled but esteemed Alexander Berkman committed suicide, convinced he was a burden to the unattainable dream. Weeks later the Spanish anarchists of the CNT and the FAI were critical in preventing a fascist coup d’etat and established one of the most famous revolutions in anarchist history. Emma Goldman said news of the revolution “would have rejuvenated [Berkman] and given him new strength, new hope. If only he had lived a little longer!” Revolution is hard, it is not guaranteed, and even its most fervent believers cannot anticipate its arrival. Do I think a revolution is possible? Absolutely. But I would not be so hasty to predict its arrival.
Ultimately this part of the argument rests upon a certain fatalism that came on strong as recently as the 70s (see The Weather Underground). I just don’t feel like environmental catastrophe is enough to induce civilisational collapse and to state that it will is a sort of green millennialism. Again, here I believe ecosystem collapse is a near certainty if we continue to operate as we do, but that doesn’t mean total collapse. Capitalism can continue, protection from the green “End Times” is just another thing you pay for like health insurance. And when inevitably the army of the unemployed is cut down by repeated disasters the remaining working class will be able to assert higher wages bringing up to some kind of post-war economy but higher tech and in an environmental wasteland. Some might argue we can mess up so badly that it is impossible to survive, but this is highly unlikely. Humans have survive a London where the gases from the sewers could kill people. The elites protect themselves, make sure there is enough surplus labour to survive disasters, or at least fund projects to keep the labour alive (at a cost to the labour of course).
This is why the wild hand waving of Brand and others over the oncoming environmental catastrophe is so uninteresting to me. It is fundamentally less scary than the post-catastrophe future under capitalism precisely because the latter doesn’t end. Frank Herbert seemed to think that “[b]eyond a critical point within a finite space, freedom diminishes as numbers increase. This is as true for humans in the finite space of a planetary eco-system as it is of gas molecules in a sealed flask. The human question is not how many can possibly survive within the system, but what kind of existence is possible for those who survive.”
Films like Elysium imagine this kind of high-tech division of labour but even their far future imaginings don’t compete with some of science fictions greatest writers who imagined structures that could house more people than planets. Think of the staggering monetary cost of those structures and then think of what that represents in human lives crushed for their creation under capitalism. iPhone suicides would look like a joke: “What you mean in the third millennium they cared if 24 workers were worked to suicide? We don’t think its a problem until its over fifteen percent!”
The scariest future is one in which capitalism survives, and it can survive because it is an eminently adaptable beast. It first flourished in the aftermath of colonialism, developed self-moderating capacities during the bad decades before and between the wars, and finally hitting its stride in the post-war years. But we have only been granted the modern boon by the grace of the capitalist and his temporary abundance. Before the capitalist tightens his belt, he will tighten yours and he is ideologically prepared to tighten conditions all the way back to the Depression-era. Further capitalism will be even more capable, now equipped with a knowledge and skill of propaganda inherited from the fascists and tuned by the best technology, a police force equipped with surveillance capabilities that would make Stalin cream his pants, and a nearly global ideology of self-blame if you do not succeed in life.
In the face of these options I am fundamentally unimpressed with the “End Times” theatrics of Brand and others. A human extinction event or natural revolution is it? Great! I can finally take a god-damned break! Call me for the after-party! But I can’t embrace revolution on easy-mode because growing state and economic capacity for exploitation and domination point to a very different future. A future with a greatly circumscribed revolutionary horizon. So lets be revolutionaries, not because it is all going to end but because it is all going to continue.