The Powerful Know We Are Right. Let’s Radicalise our Analysis | by Robert Jensen

by Nov 11, 2011All Articles

white_houseThe crisis we face is caused by failed systems – replacing leaders while keeping the old system intact will not help.

Critics now compare capitalism to cancer. The inhuman and antidemocratic features of capitalism mean that, like a cancer, the death system will eventually destroy the living host.

Both the human communities and non-human living world that play host to capitalism eventually will be destroyed by capitalism. Capitalism is not, of course, the only unsustainable system that humans have devised, but it is the most obviously unsustainable system, and it’s the one in which we are stuck. It’s the one that we are told is inevitable and natural, like the air we breathe. But the air that we are breathing is choking the most vulnerable in the world, choking us, choking the planet. 

Ecology: Out of gas, derailed, over the waterfall
In addition to inequality within the human family, we face even greater threats in the human assault on the living world that come with industrial society. High-energy/high-technology societies pose a serious threat to the ability of the ecosphere to sustain human life as we know it. Grasping that reality is a challenge, and coping with the implications is an even greater challenge. We likely have a chance to stave off the most catastrophic consequences if we act dramatically and quickly. If we continue to drag our feet, it’s “game over”.

While public awareness of the depth of the ecological crisis is growing, our knowledge of the basics of the problem is hardly new.

“World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” – issued by 1,700 of the planet’s leading scientists:

That statement was issued in 1992, and since then we have fallen further behind in the struggle for sustainability. Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live – groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species and reduction of bio-diversity – and the news is bad.

Remember also that we live in an oil-based world that is fast running out of easily accessible oil, which means we face a huge reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds our lives. And, of course, there is the undeniable trajectory of climate disruption.

Add all that up, and ask a simple question: Where we are heading? Pick a metaphor. Are we a car running out of gas? A train about to derail? A raft going over the waterfall? Whatever the choice, it’s not a pretty picture. It’s crucial we realise that there are no technological fixes that will rescue us. We have to acknowledge that human attempts to dominate the non-human world have failed. We are destroying the planet and in the process destroying ourselves.

Hope amid a harsh future

The people who run this world are eager to contain the Occupy energy not because they believe that the critics of concentrated wealth and power are wrong, but because somewhere deep down in their souls (or what is left of a soul), the powerful know we are right.

People in power are insulated by wealth and privilege, but they can see the systems falling apart. US military power can no longer guarantee world domination. Financial corporations can no longer pretend to provide order in the economy.

The industrial system is incompatible with life.

We face new threats today, but we are not the first humans to live in dangerous times. In 1957 the Nobel writer Albert Camus described the world in ways that resonate:

“Tomorrow the world may burst into fragments. In that threat hanging over our heads there is a lesson of truth. As we face such a future, hierarchies, titles, honors are reduced to what they are in reality: a passing puff of smoke. And the only certainty left to us is that of naked suffering, common to all, intermingling its roots with those of a stubborn hope.”

A stubborn hope is more necessary than ever. As political, economic, and ecological systems spiral down, it’s likely we will see levels of human suffering that dwarf even the horrors of the 20th century. Even more challenging is the harsh realisation that we don’t have at hand simple solutions – and maybe no solutions at all – to some of the most vexing problems. We may be past the point of no return in ecological damage, and the question is not how to prevent crises but how to mitigate the worst effects. No one can predict the rate of collapse if we stay on this trajectory, and we don’t know if we can change the trajectory in time.

There is much we don’t know, but everything I see suggests that the world in which we will pursue political goals will change dramatically in the next decade or two, almost certainly for the worse. Organising has to adapt not only to changes in societies but to these fundamental changes in the ecosphere.

In short: We are organising in a period of contraction, not expansion. We have to acknowledge that human attempts to dominate the non-human world have failed. We are destroying the planet and in the process destroying ourselves. Here, just as in human relationships, we either abandon the dominance/subordination dynamic or we don’t survive.

In 1948, Camus urged people to “give up empty quarrels” and “pay attention to what unites rather than to what separates us” in the struggle to recover from the horrors of Europe’s barbarism. I take from Camus a sense of how to live the tension between facing honestly the horror and yet remaining engaged. In that same talk, he spoke of “the forces of terror” (forces which exist on “our” side as much as on “theirs”) and the “forces of dialogue” (which also exist everywhere in the world). Where do we place our hopes?

“Between the forces of terror and the forces of dialogue, a great unequal battle has begun,” he wrote. “I have nothing but reasonable illusions as to the outcome of that battle. But I believe it must be fought.”

The Occupy gatherings do not yet constitute a coherent movement with demands, but they are wellsprings of reasonable illusions. Rejecting the political babble around us in election campaigns and on mass media, these gatherings are an experiment in a different kind of public dialogue about our common life, one that can reject the forces of terror deployed by concentrated wealth and power.

With that understanding, the central task is to keep the experiment going, to remember the latent power in people who do not accept the legitimacy of a system. Singer/songwriter John Gorka, writing about what appears to be impossible, offers the perfect reminder: 

“They think they can tame you, name you and frame you,
aim you where you don’t belong.
They know where you’ve been but not where you’re going,
that is the source of the songs.”

Robert Jensen is a professor at the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, Austin.

Share this article:


Latest issue

Amandla Issue #89