angrysampoetry

the foundations of oppression can't be plucked up without the anger of a multitude

Being right, annoyingly

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I saw an acquaintance on Twitter – a Labour-voting millennial – announce that out of guilt, she would be buying ‘reusable make up wipes’; that her new washing machine doesn’t have a tumble dryer; and that she was thinking of buying a bike. This new concern for environmentalism was sparked, she said, as a result of having seen David Attenborough’s latest documentary with footage of overcrowded walruses dying from cliff tops, Extinction Rebellion’s protests and from following on Twitter, 16 year old Swedish environmental protestor, Greta Thunberg.

Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg -the new generation’s not-so-new ideas about saving the environment

It is strange for those of us on the anti-capitalist left to hear the mainstreaming of arguments anti-capitalists have been propounding for decades. ‘If you are not angry, you are not paying attention’, is the classic anarchist slogan. Even in my own lifetime, we were considered strange hippies for choosing to cycle push-bikes, avoid flights, refuse plastic bags and be concerned about waste so that we re-used, recycled, bought local and avoided harmful chemicals in food and cleaning products where possible. Now we just seem like hipsters following a trend. Animal rights protestors and hunt saboteurs have been arguing for veganism as a political choice. It is not, I hope, that we want to be proved ‘right’ or want some credit for doing this before it was cool. I am glad that ‘radical’ ideas that, e.g., Murray Bookchin put forward in the early 1960s, are having some impact. I am concerned that the central thesis is being lost.

bookchin and ecology

“There is one science, however, that may yet restore and even transcend the liberatory estate of the traditional sciences and philosophies. It passes rather loosely under the name of ‘ecology'” Bookchin, ’64

‘The rich, the rich, we’ve got rid of the rich’, was the chant. Saying that the real problem in the world was not immigrants, welfare claimants or the ‘over-populated’ Global South, but those who lived in luxury at the expense of millions, was once the idea of dangerous, deluded militants. Yet, after 2008’s financial crisis, it became a standard notion to criticise bankers. So much so, it started to get under the skin of establishment figures who weren’t used to this sort of thing. Then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, told the Bloomberg Group in 2014 that one of his key points of desired reform was that “I want an end to the pointless attacks on the City of London – which is after all the asset, the financial capital of the whole of Europe.”[1] (Incidentally, he also announced that if this and other points were adopted, it would make him, in the case of an in-out EU referendum, be “happy to campaign for a yes to stay in”.)

What ‘radicals’ have for a long time pointed out, is that investment banks, hedge funds, stockbrokers and the like, do not in any way generate wealth. They may contribute taxes to the state (although most of the time they seem to be rather good at avoiding pay them) but they are not the producers of  financial value. It is rather those who produce the goods which the bankers are ultimately trading in, who create the wealth. The bankers are, and have been for centuries, parasitically making profit off the world proletariat’s exploited labour. See Karl Marx and every Marxist theorist ever since.

Similarly, on the subject of surveillance. We were seen as a paranoid conspiracy theorists to suggest that the state was spying on us through our electronic devices. In fact, anti-capitalists had been saying this long before mobile phones and the internet. Much of Michel Foucault’s work of the 1960s and 70s, for instance is about the use of data and surveillance as a means of control. But no, no, no, we were told, the Big Brother watching you was found in Stalinist or Maoist communist states like the USSR and China. The West is a democracy with freedom and human rights. Then along came Edward Snowden and the NSA revelations, the Cambridge Analytica affair and everyone said, ‘oh well, we knew all that anyway’.

Panopticon

The ‘Panopticon’: Foucault’s image of the organisation of modern society.

It is good that these ideas are becoming more commonplace. The trouble, however, with this acceptance of environmental disaster, ‘bash the bankers’ rhetoric and increased knowledge of surveillance, is that it feels sometimes that the central message has been lost: i.e anti-capitalism. The ecocide of our planet is a result not of my Twitter friend throwing away her wet-wipes, but of the mass production of the wet-wipes in the first place. Capitalism’s need for constant expansion means the continued deforestation and degradation of the land, poisoning of the seas and extraction of millennia-old, carbon-based lifeforms and the burning thereof as ‘fossil fuels’, in order to power the products and processes that the bankers trade in. Those of us who have argued against this and realistically suggested alternatives have been branded as heretics, rebels, loony-left terrorists in need of constant surveillance and disciplining in case we disrupt the smooth flow of business and the routines of hard-working, decent tax-payers.

Everything is Commons

Like the medieval land that was not owned by anyone, but on which anyone could graze cattle or grow crops, everything is commons. This is not a mere slogan but a reality of the world. Human societies have realised for as long as there have been them, that our time on Earth is short, that nothing is ever lost except individual consciousness (a thing some traditions call the ‘body’) and really we own nothing. This does not mean we cannot make, do, invent, create, transform, design etc. We are, at least while alive, active parts of nature as much as any other being. We take from it and give back to it in a chaotic, complex system. There are ways we can be considerate of our impact, however. Dumping 500 tonnes of toxic waste across the city of Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, as multinational commodity trading company Trafigura did in 2006, causing 30,000 injuries, 17 deaths, serious ecological contamination and the mass culling of infected animals, is not one of them.

Dumping ground in Abidjan for billionaire corporation Trafigura.JPG

Dumping ground in Abidjan for billionaire corporation Trafigura

As for most of things we claim to belong to, there is a Family Guy sketch where Brian and Stewie fly in an air balloon from the Arabian desert to Europe. They look down and Brian says, ‘look Stewie, it’s just how I always imagined it’ and the next frame shows their view of a terrain cut into borders like a map with the names of the seas and countries on them. The humour is that, of course, we all know the Earth does not look like that from above. The trees spread their seeds and rivers flow respective of fictional borders; birds make nests, sing songs and fly about; humans do a whole number of things.

Family guy Road to Europe

If I could be so bold as to suggest such a thing, our purpose on Earth if there is one, might be to understand it. It is what humanity has been trying to do since we could display any of the characteristics that might justify the word ‘sapiens’ (Latin for ‘wise’), as opposed to ‘erectus’, ‘habilus’ or any of those other ones. It has only been in the last few thousand years that societies have existed who wanted to tame the Earth and make it obedient. It is the vision of Alexander the Great who wept when he realised there were no more worlds to conquer. Not perhaps coincidently, it was from these societies that came idea that ‘homo’ (man) should come to mean ‘humanity’. And if you know that the word ‘humanity’ itself derives from ‘homo’ too, you’ll know that getting out of the traps of these categories is not such an easy thing. It is also from these last five thousand years that the religious, then biological idea of ‘race’ emerged, and also the ideas of inherited title designating your place and purpose in the world.

So everything is for everyone, meaning we should all have enough and not let others starve while we sit at feast. What we have we should be grateful for, and for what we (or others) are unfairly denied we should be angry. If we are going to eat meat, or take flights or throw things away that cannot decompose, we should at least be conscious of so doing. Religious people say blessings for what comes to them, and know to say prayers when an animal is killed to eat, or when you sit down to food that others grew. There is no reason why secular people shouldn’t have their own approach to this too, without pursuing themselves with guilt for every piece of packaging that their food came wrapped in.

Most importantly, we should recognise our common-ness. i.e. recognise what we have in common as individuals and what we have as a collective, or series of collectives, too. Can we as individuals, or as collectives, impose anything on other individuals or collectives? Or is to say that we can’t impose anything, to impose something too? Here I fall into another trap again by writing these polemical, mansplaining essays, making me ‘annoying’ even if not ‘right’.

In ’90s French Film, La Haine, the recurring motif of a billboard advert around Paris reads ‘Le Monde est á vous’ (the World is yours). On their walk back home from centre-ville to their suburb and to the tragic dénouement of the film, the three friends pass another such advert. Saïd takes a spray can and changes its slogans to ‘le Monde est á nous’ –  the World is ours.

la-haine

More could be said on the adoption, dilution and co-opting of feminist and anti-racist traditions but for now I’ll leave it here.

[1] ‘https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/gla_migrate_files_destination/bj-europe-speech.pdf

Written by angrysampoetry

April 21, 2019 at 12:47 pm

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