Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Future We Have

(And the Presence We Need)
at Rio+20

by Quincy Saul
Spring 2012

(This article first appeared on The Africa Report.)

The world system is in universal crisis but a salvage operation appears to be underway. The latest exercise in PR for human civilization, as we know it, will be launched in a few months at the Rio+20 world summit on sustainable development. It commemorates 20 years since the first world conference on this subject in 1992.

While all indications of socio-political unraveling and ecological collapse accelerate beyond the most pessimistic predictions, hopes that the meeting in Rio will turn things around are staggeringly high.

The UN document "The Future We Want", prepared to inspire unity for Rio, is a shining example of these hopes. It highlights many noble and laudable goals. Unfortunately, the document and the hopes it represents are completely delusional. As John Robinson says, "we live in our heads. We live in storyland".

The fact that 20 years of humanitarian and environmental rhetoric has presided over one of the most brutal and destructive periods in human history cannot be acknowledged, as this would raise too many uncomfortable questions. So, instead, the rhetoric is simply amplified. Workers, women, indigenous, and even "rights of nature" are put to work in this document to inspire us into submission to the delusional hope that reality can be spun as easily as words.

The UN document decries in heartfelt terms the poverty and crisis that defines the world today. In this it is very effective at generating our sympathies. But as Oscar Wilde noted a long time ago, "it is easier to have sympathy with suffering than with thought." Where sympathy with suffering may inspire a superficial unity, thought forces us to inquire into the sources of suffering. If real unity is our goal, thought and not pity will have to guide us. Otherwise we will wind up with a kind of unity which, to paraphrase Nietzsche, may appear deep but is not even superficial.

If the UN document is any indication, superficial unity will be the name of the game for Rio+20. The poverty and ecological disasters of the last 20 years are defined here as anomalous "setbacks" and "interrelated crises." Never mind that it has been well and widely known and recognized since the 19th century that poverty and crisis are normal, predictable conditions of the capitalist mode of production. This of course cannot be mentioned. So instead we must resort to the clinically insane hope that voluntary actions on the part of the 1% will somehow transform the fundamental dynamics of the last several centuries.

Buried in the politically correct rhetoric is a barbaric kernel: "We welcome the outcome of COP17 at Durban and look forward to the urgent implementation of all the agreements reached." For those who haven't been paying attention, this outcome and these agreements ensure that no action to reduce carbon emissions will be taken until 2020. The result is premeditated genocide against the global South. Perhaps the UN cronies who wrote about the future they want should stroll down memory lane, and read the UN reports from the recent past about the consequences of these "welcome outcomes."

Increasingly we must resort to clinical psychiatric terminology to describe the mindset that characterizes this kind of thinking and behavior. How can we describe these high hopes for Rio, other than as delusional and schizophrenic? "We don't live in the real world, but live only in the world we imagine," says David Maggs.

Even FOX news seems to know better than the UN when it comes to Rio+20, describing it as "something like a global Green Woodstock, this time enhanced on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube."

Unfortunately, the conference in Rio is not just a joke. The principal goal of the global 1% in Rio will be to marry biodiversity, sustainability and all things green to capitalism, through the framework of the "Green Economy". Their goal is to renegotiate the principles of sustainable development to include big business and Wall Street as leaders. Given the lack of organized opposition, they are likely to succeed in these predictably catastrophic goals.

Regardless of the future we want, this is the future we have. Unless – and this is our only hope – a force from outside the ruling consensus shatters the illusion that there is any hope for this world system, and begins to organize itself around systemic alternatives.

This is the presence we need – not in symbolic protests and rallies – but in a revolutionary mass uprising. This uprising must both bury capitalism and fertilize a system capable of preserving biodiversity and democracy. I would call this ecosocialism, but the task of defining a sane civilization requires an international struggle. Unfortunately this is not what is on the table for Rio+20.

A few of those who are going to Rio in June know this, and they are going to build alliances and networks, preparing for the global united front against capitalism, which is humanity's and nature's only hope. But until these revolutionaries stop chasing the 1% around the world to their sham conferences and build their own autonomous bases of resistance and production, the future we really need will remain an opposite but mirror image of the delusional hopes for Rio+20.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Coming Supersession

Reflections on the Situationist Legacy

"The workers in the advanced countries have done all they could, or intended, to do -- which was always something short of a revolution."
-Oliver Cox

Over 40 years have passed since the Situationist International prophesied the Decline and Fall of the "Spectacular" Commodity Economy, which they saw prefigured in the riots of Watts. Looking back, many their assertions are sharp, timely, and resonant. The essay could be reprinted with little alteration about the 2011 riots in London. But riots have been small. By and large society has stayed loyal to the spectacle. The "developed" world has failed to generate its own negation.

The Situationist alchemy derived the imaginative semantics of the revolution of everyday life from the mechanistic syntax of consumer affluence. Theirs was one of the most advanced efforts within the consumer world to break from objective and subjective conditions and make a leap forwards in human evolution. But it failed.

Today the spectacle is more widespread and more deeply insidious than ever before. Billions still pay the externalized price for this poisonous affluence, like they did before, with poverty and crushed aspirations. And those whose sins they die for have collectively, cumulatively, effectively made their choice. Survival is preferred to life.

Instead of leaving the 20th century, we are living the 20th century 2.0. Look at the metropoles, old and new, from Shenzhen to Manhattan. Like a hot potato or a sub-prime mortgage, the center cannot hold or be held. Conditions -- the elusive objective phenomena that conditioning has succeeded in obscuring definitively -- are in free fall. Everything points to catastrophe, yet the spectacle still grows stronger.

You can see, in the glazed eyes and minds of the metropoles, that they have made their choice. Humanism or no humanism, titillation trumps the totality. Let the billions be damned.

"The more I looked, the less real America became, and the less real it became, the stronger it got," reflected Mason Lang, in Grant Morrison's The Invisibles. The spectacle has become practically (if not truly) hermetically sealed, in some kind of closed, self-referential, and ever expanding phase space. Finance is its posterchild and proof. The cybernetic state has long since arisen, on the trembling boundaries of cause and effect.

The possibilities for situations of autonomy, desire, and playfulness remain, but we have lost the battle to save the spectacle from itself. Tidal waves, earthquakes, economic collapses and mass extinctions have not slowed the window shopping for a minute on Park Avenue. No matter how many of us start choosing love over the garbage disposal machine, it is now too late; no magnitude of revolution can reverse the cumulative choices of our past.

The original Situationist program -- leaving the 20th century -- must, in their terms, be superseded.

The billions excluded from this nightmarish paradise of the apogee of the spectacular commodity economy have seen more than metropolitan myopia could. They know the spectacle has no future, and consequently begin to suspect that we in its society have no future. As Jose Dolores told William Walker in Gillo Pontecorvo's film Burn, “Ingles! Remember what you said: civilization belongs to the whites. But what civilization? And 'til when?”

Time itself has no future measured in the centuries that this dying civilization has imposed on it. Chief Seattle said it long ago: "Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. The end of living and the beginning of survival."

The SI advised whites to join with the blacks of Watts: "Whites who cast off their role have no chance unless they link their struggle more and more the blacks' struggle, uncovering his real and coherent reasons and supporting them until the end."
We must make a still greater supersession; join with those outside this system and this century.

We lost the battle of life against survival, the battle of love against the garbage disposal unit, we failed to seize control of the new techniques of conditioning. The SI spirit is as relevant as ever, their tactics so fresh and unsurpassed that we should be ashamed of ourselves. Dialectics can still break bricks, but time has run down. The spectacular commodity economy and the spectacular survival of its citizens will be shattered not by armed joy, but by ecological crisis, the bare life of mass migrations, and the totalitarianism which is the last if lengthy gasp of every totality.

The coming supersession is upon us. If and when we make the SI praxis our own -- that the priority of the revolutionary movement is the transformation of everyday life -- it will have a new meaning, qualitatively beyond its original.

They warned us that "it's not just the cops, it's the geometry." Now we must comprehend that it's not just the geometry, but the ecology. "It's the planet, stupid."

No longer can we imagine everyone with their own cathedral. Capitalist abundance will die in the clutches of its erstwhile masters because it is fundamentally eco-cidal. The real revolutionary movement will never touch it.


We must still escape survival and return to life. But life itself, playful or not, is going to include a new kind of survival. The cybernetic commune of cathedrals, of which the Situationists dreamed, is an ecological impossibility, and also an objective enemy to the excluded colonies for whom it isn't an option.

The next Situationist supersession must come full circle, from fighting a survival that is a spiritual suicide, to embracing a new kind of survival that is a spiritual liberation. To make subsistence playful and passionate.

First nation peoples all over the world like Chief Seattle, held in contempt by Manifest Destiny on the Left and the Right, prophesied the rise and the fall of the society of the spectacle: "The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all other tribes. Contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste." The fall is coming, it has already begun. It comes just as the Situationists surmised, "gradually at first, and then, suddenly."

The original Situationist weapon was to derive revolution from abundance (life from survival). In the future our theoretical armory must be retooled to derive emancipation from scarcity: a new kind of life from a new kind of survival.

Or else we may choose to wait, agitating the window shoppers and detourning the last gasps of illusion, until the shadow of a tidal wave or the abyss of an earthquake finally arrives over and under us. The billions be damned or not, they are the only hope. Do we share it?

Hampshire College, April 2012