Published online 16 January 2007.
This is a review of the late Teresa Brennan’s book Globalization and its Terrors, to examine its relevance toward our current, out of control, globalized economy.
Oil wars water wars TV propaganda whores
Fire alarm met with snores no one gets what’s gone before
Slow down fast
Slow down fast
Flagwave hammer slave gonna be a close shave
Stay brave jump the grave got to save what we can save
Slow down fast
Slow down fast
The inspiration for this diary comes from Dave Lindorff, who asks the question, Are we all just nuts? as regards the question of global warming. Thanks, Dave, and yes, we are all just nuts. But it really isn’t our fault.
When crossing the street near her Florida home, Teresa Brennan was hit by a vehicle in December of 2002. She died two months later. Unfortunately, she was at the time one of the few people on Earth who not only knew that we are all nuts, but to start to work on the problem of why this is so. Her thinking on this matter seems to have reached its apex in a book (published in 2003) titled Globalization and its Terrors.
(Teresa Brennan (1952-2003))
Brennan recognized the reality mentioned in Lindorff’s diary off the bat: “Globalization, unimpeded, will destroy the climate, hence the lives of billions of humans and thousands of species in their totality.” (xvii) This is a book about the fossil fuel economy, to a certain extent, as it proclaims that “at a certain cumulative point, fossil fuel emissions really will destroy the life of the future.” The point of these broad-brush generalizations, however, is not merely to criticize our global society’s excessive burning of fossil fuels. More broadly, though, Globalization and its Terrors is a book that critiques globalization as something that is bad not only for the nations of the South, the traditional victims of globalization (and more specifically of the IMF’s structural adjustment programs), but also for “the West,” the supposed residence of the world’s “middle classes” and the ostensive beneficiaries of globalization.
The use of directional labels (“North,” “South” “West,) gets confusing in the reading of this book, as I would prefer to regard the world of globalization as divided among “accumulation nations” and “extraction nations,” so that when Brennan says “the North’s prosperity, in large part, is made at the expense of the South,” she is talking about the accumulation of “the North” and the extraction from “the South,” and not the location of these nations per se.
Brennan critiqued globalization as global capitalism, but she did not endorse “socialism,” not at least of the type championed by the Soviet Union. Her main criticism of globalization, though, was not tied merely to its excessive consumption or its failure to deliver on its promises of global health and happiness. These, observed Brennan, are mere effects: Brennan’s main criticism is of globalization’s accelerating speed. Globalized capitalism is just too fast for the biological world, and the result is that, besides being toxic to the natural world, it fosters a perversion of the human mentality. (Brennan discusses the psychology of this perversion in her other books, most notably Exhausting Modernity.)
Chapter 2 of Globalization and its Terrors deals with what Brennan called “bioderegulation,” in which “humans work harder conforming to the rules of inhuman time, to restrict human interaction and personal contact, and to make us commute further (and migrate as a matter of course).” In selling their labor in the free market, Brennan argues, human beings have had to learn to conform to the tempo of a machine-world that moves much faster (and much further) than is humanly possible. The result is overwork for some and unemployment for others, with huge populations on the move both in commutes and in migrations, say, from Mexico to the United States. Chapter 3, “The War on the Atmosphere,” chronicles the “right to pollute” granted to corporations by free trade agreements such as NAFTA, and Chapter 4, “The War on the Sea, Land, and Other Conditions of Life,” mostly details the perils of corporate agriculture. Chapter 5, “Health Cuts and Corporate Wealth,” discusses the crisis in health care in the US. Chapter 6, “Education And The Cost Of Children,” and Chapter 7, “The Third Way and the Feminization of Poverty,” deal with the environment of poverty into which a segment of the population of women and children are thrust. These chapters may contain a number of statistics that need updating, yet Brennan has the basic conditions described well. We’re insane, and the conditions of life today are what’s doing it to us.
From Chapter 8 on, Brennan’s focus becomes one of explaining why she wishes to associate globalization with terror. The basic argument is this: we imagine, in this era of capitalism, that technology is the main source of profit, but what technology does for profit is really something else. The system, in reality, feeds off of human labor and natural resources, and technology allows us to consume that labor and those resources more competitively, such that we’ve created a capitalist system that is devouring the planet far faster than it can regenerate itself. As technology advances, the devouring process accelerates. Society separates more and more into a structure of winners and losers.
Against this, Teresa Brennan proposes a Prime Directive, spelled out as follows: we shall not use up nature and humankind at a rate faster than they can replenish themselves and be replenished. The rhythm of life must be slowed to conform to the biological realities of natural reproduction. Wealth must be redistributed, and the economy of small ownership and local production for local use must be reinstituted. Brennan is no primitivist: for she argues for the retention and improvement of modern technology, but rather for what looks to me like a small business economy of the sort once praised by Adam Smith. She argued: “By going back, I do not mean foregoing the real advances of civilization in the last two centuries. Rather, these social advances are the motivation to go back, deliberately, to an older form of economic ownership.” (157) Brennan stood in praise of the economic model, proposed by Gandhi, of village production. Globalization and its Terrors, offers, specifically, the vision of a post-capitalist world marketed to Florida conservatives.
In support of the Prime Directive, Brennan suggested that a spiritual movement, based in existing religions, might endorse variations on her Prime Directive: she cited, for instance, versions of “Islam economics” and Catholic “liberation theology” that seemed to echo what she wanted. She also suggested that politicians could follow the Prime Directive in policymaking, but that “if these politicians continually take the pragmatic path away from the prime directive, then the prime directive may be implemented by more direct means,” i.e. revolution.
What do I think of all this? First of all, Brennan’s critique of capitalism appears to have hit its target squarely. Our economic system is consuming the world too quickly, and the result is a depleted world. We need to, in Bruce Cockburn’s words, “slow down fast.”
Secondly, putting everyone into an economy of “small business,” in the current era, will indeed require wholesale social engineering of the sort Brennan realized to be necessary, of a sort that is neither small nor businesslike. But this is not necessarily an impossible dream: our society, today, is already socially engineered. We can see this by understanding how small business, as it subsists today, is not the fulfillment of Brennan’s utopia, but rather the product of capitalist society as it has developed so far.
My understanding of it was that economically-competitive small business, today, for the most part adds marginal, specialized labor values to production and distribution processes which are themselves large-scale and industrial. The problem is not merely that production and distribution are large-scale, but that vulnerability to “the market” requires small businesses to become adjuncts of big business for the sake of profiting off of small margins. A practical examination of what it takes for small businesses to compete with WalMart will reveal nothing less. And as vulnerability to “the market” spreads around the world, we can see, large business triumphs over small business. The social engineering being proposed here would be a reversal of the social engineering that has gone on under neoliberalism. Whether social engineering that reversed the course of neoliberalism would be stable is another question, however.
Thirdly, there is the problem of privilege that appears to me as a sort of undertow against Brennan’s attempt to sell post-capitalist society to Floridians. We may be insane; but are we too comfortable in our insanity, today, to really do anything about it besides complain about it while watching television after work? I’m just not sure that the malaise described in Chapter 2 of this book is bound to prompt any mass action among the First World working public.
Lastly, we may wish to reconsider some of the old ideals of “communism,” at least in principle, while agreeing with Brennan in her dismissal of the Soviet alternative to capitalist society. The ideal of a society without social classes, for instance, may prove to be useful in a future where “economic growth” no longer provides the seed-bed for social mobility.