Apocalyptic Paradoxes

Last night I went to see “Mad Max: Fury Road” — a surprisingly moving and powerful movie about traumatized people fleeing slavery in a world turned into a wasteland by a nuclear apocalypse and coming together to fight for liberation.

Leaving the movie I was struck by the fact that most of the stories people in our culture tell about organized resistance against oppression are set in dystopias created in the wake of a cataclysm.   And indeed, apocalyptic events seem to be the only thing most people believe can bring an end to capitalism.   From people praying and organizing to bring about the collapse of civilization, to people stocking bunkers with food, guns, and gold, to rumors of the wealthy fearing retaliation, the sense that we are on the verge of apocalyptic change seems to have a powerful grip on the imaginations of many.

We are living in a century that began with the Y2K panic, which soon gave way to the fear of terrorism and wave after wave of disease panics from SARS to Ebola.   While there have always been apocalyptic panics in our culture, they seem to have escalated once the intellectual consensus set in in the West that capitalism had secured a final and permanent victory with the fall of the Soviet Union.   Remarking on this phenomenon, Slavoj Žižek said:

“Think about the strangeness of today’s situation. Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism”

To add to the strangeness of the situation, the conditions people in this culture identify as apocalyptic are already the norm for poor people around the world — rule by armed gangs and militarized police, struggles for food and water, shanty towns made from the detritus of a failing global economy.  As the late Terrence McKenna said:

“The apocalypse is not something which is coming. The apocalypse has arrived in major portions of the planet and it’s only because we live within a bubble of incredible privilege and social insulation that we still have the luxury of anticipating the apocalypse.”

Increasingly, from Attawapiskat to Baltimore, the devastating economic conditions and deadly, bizarre combination of governmental neglect and brutal state power that are the defining features of pop culture’s nightmare visions of the future are playing out in the US and Canada.

Ultimately, this is nothing new.   The rise of capitalism was made possible by genocide in the Americas, the kidnapping of slaves from Africa, and the destruction of rural communities in Europe  through the forced privatization of the commons — the process of primitive accumulation that generated the material base on which our culture built its superstructure.   And violence has persisted throughout capitalism’s history — domestic repression designed to prevent uprisings, and the expansionist violence of colonialism and its neoliberal variants which continue the process of primitive accumulation in a perpetual struggle against the laws of thermodynamics to keep an ever expanding economy from completely outstripping its resource base.   As Walter Benjamin wrote in 1940:

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ’emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. – The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are ‘still’ possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.”

Capitalist culture has cast a glamour on us collectively that makes us believe violence and destruction are future threats that will overtake us if we stop maintaining its machinery while rendering invisible or dismissing as unfortunate but necessary tragedies. (When asked about the death of 2,500 Iraqi children a month as a result of sanctions that prevented their country from repairing the water treatment plants the US had bombed and from importing adequate food and medicine, Madeline Albright, then Bill Clinton’s Ambassador to the United Nations, told “60 Minutes” reporter, Lesley Stahl, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.”)

The re-enchantment of the world requires that we dispel that glamour.  Smoke and mirrors have made us fear that if capitalism collapses we will live in a wasteland, while diverting our attention to the fact that that wasteland is already around us.

No more waiting for the apocalypse to organize our resistance.  Its time to align ourselves with the forces living and dead, human and wild and divine that have been standing against this onslaught from the beginning, and make way for the possibility of other worlds.