Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Friday, June 3, 2016

Walking away from the American Dream

I'm a millennial.  On the old side, to be sure, I was in high school when Y2K failed to end the world in fire (to my immense disappointment), but I am definitely in the line up when boomers shake their fists and complain bitterly about our entitlement and narcissism.

When you stop to think about it, the hypocrisy is staggering.  This, from the generation of Americans that turned imperialism into the national sport, launched a fleet of self-important pseudo-spiritual individualist movements, and put the finishing touches on wrecking the biosphere.

Thanks, pops.

It's probably evident already that this post is going to be heavily larded with a certain inter-generational hostility; and indeed, there's going to be a fair bit of that as this blog moves forward.  That's because my generation, and those that come immediately after, are the ones struggling most acutely with the collapse of industrial capitalism in the United States.  Obviously it's not biting exclusively along generational lines, but we're getting hit harder.

"The American Dream" is basically the narrative of how previous generations of Americans have scrambled for their cut of the booty of empire.  Land stolen from native peoples, labor value extracted from slaves, capital looted from the global south.  The United States has been able to maintain more or less constant economic growth for two centuries by riding the same fossil-fuel powered growth train the rest of the industrial world was riding, and then spring-boarding off of that by stealing most of  continent and then building a global empire.  The Dream culminated in the 20th century story that every American can and should live a lifestyle of, by global and historical standards, immense privilege and luxury, with a large home stuffed with technological marvels and a small family divorced from extended community ties, in which one could expect to live out many years of idle retirement funded by capital investments.

Profitable business, until you run out of shit to steal, and the wheels come off.

It's a lifestyle of immense opulence when compared to how the vast majority of people now, and throughout history, have lived.  The idea that an entire nation (let alone the entire world, if only they could get enough Freedom(tm)) could live this way is, and always was, farcical. 

And to our collective shame, Millenials are not increasingly rejecting the American Dream because it is gluttonous in the extreme, but because we missed our shot; the buffet is picked-over, the bill is due.  We are turning our backs on this narrative, not because it was always unsustainable, but because reality denies us our chance to participate in the delusion.

Increasingly, we see people turning to radical community as a way, not to wage class warfare, but to survive.  Small-scale social safety nets in the form of gofundme campaigns, a return of multigenerational households as NEETs return to the nest, and people not related or involved romantically living communally to reduce costs are all examples of pre-industrial social organization creeping back up in new forms like weeds growing through cracks in a sidewalk.  The atomized, alienated, nuclear-family centric mode of production and consumption that makes up the framework of the American Dream is falling apart, and in this we see opportunities for building a sustainable future, and fighting back against a repressive past.

This is another theme I'll be exploring in this here blog, whenever I'm not too busy struggling to survive, myself.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

A few words about Dual Power

A couple of weeks ago, I left you with a phrase, as evocative as it is easily misunderstood: Dual Power. I'd like to unpack it a bit, because it basically sums up my approach, not just to political struggle, but to survival in general (to the extent that those are different things, at least).

Wikipedia has a reasonable entry on Dual Power, and it's worth clicking over to have a look if you want a more thorough historical treatment than I'm prepared to give here.

The tl;dr: "Dual power" was a phrase originally coined by V. I. Lenin during the early days of the Russian Revolution, when the Czar had fallen, but state power was contested between the Soviet worker's councils and the provisional government.  Lenin was describing a situation where two different governments, both new and unstable, were building their institutions and power bases in parallel and in opposition to one another; this was a really unusual situation, and what we're facing now bears little similarity to it.  More contemporary socialists have used the term to mean, basically, undermining state control by building alternative organizations that provide services and adjudicate conflicts; in a sense, robbing the current state apparatus of market share. 

In this sense, Lenin was describing a war, while we're describing an insurgency.

As a strategy of revolution, the idea of Dual Power is that the state derives its power from the legitimacy granted to its structures by the masses of people.  All of us, every day, interact with state apparatus, in everything from law enforcement to food stamps to road construction.  Because the state administers these things, we confer power and legitimacy on that state when we use them, whether we like it or not.  If we can find some way to avoid using these structures, we undermine the power of the state that administers them.

Our ability to simply boycott state structure is pretty limited, but we can, in many situations, set up alternatives.  For example, state-run food programs (EBT, TANF, "food stamps") provide a crucial service, but generally involve monitoring, reporting, and snooping into the lives of working class people in need that serve to enforce the power and social dominance of the state.  People are, indeed, disempowered by utilizing state aid programs, but it is not, as right wing advocates claim, because such aid disincentivizes work; it's because of the intrusive and humiliation "othering" that those in need suffer at the hands of the state bureaucracy in order to access aid (I speak from experience).

Community-run food banks, on the other hand, provide an alternative source of aid for neighbors in need; fulfilling a service that the state also provides, but doing it in a way that builds rather than undermines community solidarity and pride.  The people who receive the aid, and those that give it, belong to the same community, and both have a concrete example of a community solving a problem internally, without relying on a government agency that deliberately cultivates an air of superiority, of distinction, from the community it ostensibly serves. 

If this leads to a general realization that the state (in its current form or any form at all) is not necessary for living, that it simply maintains a de facto monopoly on the power to solve problems, a monopoly that can be undermined, we have an instance of Dual Power as a revolutionary act.  The Black Panthers' Free Breakfast for School Children program is an excellent historical example of this strategy at work.  The Panthers declared that black communities in the United States were not locked in poverty because of a lack of industry or ability on their own part, but because of policies of the state, and they proceeded to prove it by addressing a critical concern, child nutrition, with no resources from the state whatsoever.

So, why am I harping on this so much in a blog about surviving climate change and peak oil?  Because Dual Power is a strategy with three distinct advantages in the situation in which we find ourselves:
  1. It does NOT focus on the seizure of existing power structures (sometimes referred to in brief as "seizing State Power," another turn of phrase of comrade Lenin); as these power structures under capitalism are distinctly unsuited to addressing problems of peak oil and climate change--at least not without so much reworking as to make them essentially new structures.
  2. It can win incremental victories on a variety of scales; Dual Power builds the components of a resilient and independent community, and those components are nearly as useful individually as they would be as part of a post-capitalist, whole system.  Whatever the outcome of the war, every battle won brings real and potentially permanent gains.
  3. As a strategy, it is ideologically very inclusive.  All people need to have in common in order to pursue it together is a shared belief that the current system is inadequate to human needs, and can be replaced with one that is, piece by piece. Communists, socialists, libertarians, anarchists, people of a staggering variety of political outlooks can effectively work on Dual Power projects together.
As I've hopefully conveyed with this thumbnail sketch, Dual Power is a strategy with a rich history of theory and implementation, and not something I came up with on my own.  My understanding an implementation of it in my own work is hugely influenced by the teaching of my comrades and friends; it is the core strategy of our joint work in the pacific northwest.  One of the purposes of this blog is to serve as a laboratory notebook of our efforts to put this strategy into practice.  Hopefully it'll be as edifying to read as to write!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The future will be hard, but not bad: A change in tone.

It occurs to me that a brief interlude to set the tone of this reboot is probably in order.

Any frank discussion of the ecological limits of human civilization is going to come across as dark and cynical, because we live in a society that takes perpetual growth and technological advance as both given and ultimately desirable.  It's impossible to overstate how ubiquitous this is in western thought; everyone, and I mean everyone, from Democrats to Republicans to fascists to communists to lizard people, have internalized the narrative of perpetual growth to a significant extent.

When I say "industrial society is coming to a close", people hear "we're all gonna die", but what I really mean is "the current state of affairs can't continue, so something else is going to happen."  And given how much industrialism kinda sucks, I view this as a positive development on the whole.  The transition to that something else is likely to be a bumpy ride, because as I've stated here before, the transition is going to be uncontrolled and unplanned, but I actually have a great deal of optimism for where we'll wind up.  The Earth is a supremely adaptable system, and we as  species are without a doubt the most adaptable component of that system.

So while I have no doubt that industrial capitalism is headed for the dustbin, I also have no doubt that human culture, and humanity itself, are not.  Every so often I see someone say that humanity will be extinct in the next one hundred to five hundred years, and my response is always barely polite laughter.

Near-term human extinction is bullshit.  Short of a random cosmological event, a gamma-ray burst or truly massive asteroid impact, something that strips the Earth's atmosphere or liquefies the crust, I expect humanity to be able survive basically any conceivable insult.  Every lineage on the planet has survived at least six mass extinction events, including the dinosaurs (which were not actually wiped out 65 million years ago; I have one sitting on a perch not five feet from me as I type this), and none of those lineages had the ability to modify self and environment to the point of being able to colonize literally every biome on the planet.  Something would have to happen that is capable of sterilizing all multi-cellular life on Earth before humanity is rubbed out. 

I don't think even humanity is capable of causing human extinction;  even deliberate genocide failed to exterminate Native Americans, Jews, Armenians, Kurds, or Tutsis, to name but a few of the peoples who live on despite thorough attempts to eliminate them.  A carefully designed super plague might come close, but anything lethal enough to threaten the species will burn itself out without reaching the most isolated communities.  There are 7.5 billion of us, and with few exceptions, every one of those billions turn their considerable wit and adaptability to the challenge of survival, every day.

So there WILL be a future.  And humans being humans, that future will involve music, love, stories, and booze, so it'll be pretty neat, all told.  The transition will be hard, and weathering it with as many of our friends and loved ones as possible is the topic of this blog, but I'm not pessimistic, and I hope you aren't either.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The 2016 Election: This is why we're fucked.

As old followers of this blog (or folks who've perused the archives) likely know, I used to be a member of the Communist Party, USA. When I left that organization in late 2014, it was largely over disagreements with how the organization itself was led (I prefer my democratic centralism with some democracy, thanks); however, there were some pretty dramatic disagreements over strategy, as well, and leaving the CPUSA has giving me and my comrades here in the Pacific Northwest a chance to develop our own.

In a nutshell, the strategic disagreement is this: the CPUSA's main line of attack against capitalism is trying to encourage incremental change through support of Democratic candidates against Republican ones. Recognizing that a third-party electoral challenge is not, at the moment, likely to be successful, the CPUSA has elected to go the "lesser of two evils" route by supporting a party that, while pro-capitalist, is at least on paper in favor of some social programs. They hope that these programs can be expanded into socialism, a strategy frequently referred to as "reformism".

My last post four years ago was actually something of a crosspost; it was a piece I co-wrote for the People's World, the newspaper of the Communist Party, USA. The "Why We Fight" essay was an attempt to describe how a second term Obama Presidency would finally take substantial action on climate change; it was, in other words, a defense of a reformist strategy.

Well, President Obama did win reelection, and the linchpin of his climate change agenda is the Paris Agreement, signed by an overwhelming majority of countries just last week. It is indeed an impressive feat of international horsetrading, and it's clear that President Obama made it a significant priority for his administration. That's not nothing. The agreement calls on signatory nations to make an effort to limit global mean temperature increase to 2 ̊C by the end of the century, which is a laudable goal.

However, the agreement is nonbinding. There is no enforcement mechanism. The Fifth Assesment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in late 2013, predicts that a 2 ̊C anomaly by the end of the 21st century is almost certain; the Paris Agreement is DOA.

Democratic policy is, as it so often is, "feel good" policy.

Greg and I spent a good portion of the "Why We Fight" piece describing the different rhetoric of the two US political parties around climate change, and we were correct; the Republicans continue to act as if climate change is not a problem, while the Democrats (especially, this time around, Bernie Sanders) publicly wring their hands about it. But there is no reason to expect that another Democratic President would be any more effective than Barack Obama has been at taking meaningful action.  Because the office of the Presidency simply does not have the power to do more than slap the occasional band-aid  on the problem, and even that requires a tractable congress and international cooperation.

It's past time to come to terms with the fact that global capitalism will not "solve" climate change. It will be destroyed by climate change. Whatever we build in the ruins, whatever we preserve for the future, will have to take into account the substantial changes to the Earth system that are now, for all intents and purposes, inevitable.

Which is why you won't find me talking about national politics on this blog very much from here on out. Until national collective action on climate change and peak oil appears possible, let alone likely, my focus will remain local.

Which brings me to that strategic disagreement I mentioned earlier. A vocal minority within the CPUSA was critical of reformist strategy, because one need only look at the trajectory of national US politics since 1980 or so to realize that both mainstream US political parties are tacking hard to the right, making any attempt at reformism a losing proposition. To a certain extent, picking the lesser of two options seems like a no brainer; no one was suggesting voting for Republicans. But the critics pointed out that if national politics (specifically the pit for money and volunteer energy that is a US Presidential race) offers you two options, "lose", and "lose worse", then maybe it's time to consider a different field of struggle entirely.

Several of us advocated for a grassroots strategy of building working class institutions to provide support and services that are being increasingly cutoff by both Republican and Democratic government officials. This is not an electoral strategy at all, but rather a community-based strategy: by helping working-class people build mechanisms of community support, be they free schools, cooperative childcare, food shares, or what have you, you simultaneously build a sense of agency and power in the working class, and reduce the dependency of that class on wages and handouts from the ruling class.

In short, you build a class with the consciousnesses and resources to challenge capitalist power directly, rather than in a two-party electoral struggle where everything is in the ruling class's terms.

You also build community resilience against climate change and peak oil, without relying on mainstream political efforts.

It's that last point that makes this whole topic relevant to the project of this blog. In coming posts I'll talk about specific projects my comrades and I pursue as part of our community strategy, which we've taken to calling Dual Power. More on this later!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Socialism or barbarism?

Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Luxemburg's turn of phrase, while certainly apt in the tumultuous years of the First World War, take on a special significance for us in the 21st century. We are, indeed, at a crossroads.

Before its long hiatus, this blog spent a great deal of time laying out, in occasionally morbid detail, exactly why industrial society faces the end of business as usual.

To briefly recap: The explosive growth in technological advancement and productivity of the years since the Industrial Revolution were made possible by fossil fuels. It's been argued that the economic complexity of any society is directly proportional to the energy that is available to that society, all else being equal. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, all human societies were limited, ultimately, to the energy available from the sun. Less technologically sophisticated societies might be limited to human muscle power; more sophisticated to animal muscle power; and still more sophisticated might utilize mechanically amplified wind and water power. All of these societies, however, were ultimately limited by the amount of energy entering the Earth system each year from the sun, which provides the energy to grow crops to feed humans and animals, and ultimately drives the weather systems that bring wind and fill reservoirs.

The Industrial Revolution made available the Earth's fossil fuels, which represented literally millions upon millions of years of stored solar energy, in the form of fossilized plant matter from long-gone eras. Humanity, previously limited to finding more efficient ways to utilize a limited but (for our purposes) perpetual energy budget, had quite literally won the energy lottery. A gigantic, one-time sum of concentrated fuel, allowing humanity, for a time, to attain power levels far greater than the sum of available solar energy in the Earth system.

This paradigm-changing event was a qualitative change in human society. It's no coincidence that the latest great Revolution, the overthrow of Feudalism by Capitalism, was pushed over the edge by fossil fuels. The bourgeoisie, in its time a revolutionary class, sought to find more ingenious ways of harnessing this new energy, and a new, heightened level of exploitation it made possible. Fossil energy did for the exploitation of the laboring classes what the cotton gin did for slavery in the United States; it was possible to squeeze more productivity from fewer workers. This set the stage for the new class contradictions of the Industrial Age, the stage on which the drama of humanity has played ever since.

But while this bonanza of incredible energy has persisted long enough to completely alter the fabric of human society, long enough that no one now alive can remember when humanity was limited to the renewable power from the sun, and endless growth is central mantra of of our culture, it must come to an end, is coming to an end, as described in these pages and the sources we cite.

If capitalism is the result and vassal of nearly limitless fossil energy, what happens when we run out?

Socialism or barbarism.

In his analysis of the primary contradiction of capitalism, Marx pointed out that capitalism was a necessary predecessor of socialism, and ultimately communism, because it was through capitalism that the productive processes of human labor were centralized and organized, in a fashion that is necessary for a society managed for the common good. However, I don't think Marx fully realized the transitory nature of this; that the socialized production created by capitalism and necessary for communism was dependent on fossil energy, which by definition was always a limited resource.

If Marx was correct in presuming that socialism must be built on the substrate of a functioning capitalist economy, it may be too late. The classic revolutionary model of "seize state power and build socialism from the top down", already a strategy with a dubious history, is unlikely to be workable in any case as the central organization of production made possible by fossil energy flies apart in the face of climate pressure and peak oil.

Do we, then, consign ourselves to Luxemburg's barbarism, a Mad Max future of hideous wars fought over depleting resources? I'm not prepared to do that.

Which brings us to this here re-rebooted blog. I've been through a lot in the last four years, since my shared project with Kir'Shara ground to a halt amidst existential despair. Which was probably an inevitable result of a project that, let's be honest, fairly wallowed in doom-porn. Trying to convince people that society is fucked is not the most emotionally fulfilling thing to do with one's time, after all. And in that time, I've developed some ideas for what individuals and small groups of people can do to prepare themselves and their communities for the coming Dark Age.

Seldon's Gate is a name inspired by the notion that a relatively small handful of people can build something that will last into a future that, while grim, carries the promise of rebirth. It's a small project, a personal project, but it seems appropriate to chronicle it here. So this blog will be a mixture of personal log, theoretical sandbox, and practical guide to building community and hope in increasingly shitty times.

I don't know if you'll learn anything, but I hope you'll be entertained.