Clear and magical thinking

Published online 30 May 2014.

Certainly there’s got to be a lot of thinking going on.  Human beings are the most versatile species to ever appear on planet Earth, and one of the foundations of our versatility as a species is our ability to perform acts of higher-order thinking.  So there’s what, 7.2 billion of us right now?  That’s a lot of thought.

One question that might inspire us to think further, however, is that of whether or not our thoughts are clear.  Are our thoughts organized in pursuit of worthy goals?  For a great period of time we thought they were.  In support of our hubris we were inspired by short texts such as the Marquis de Condorcet’s “Sketch” — it told the story of how human reason, despite the many barriers facing it, triumphed in the end and led us out of the dark ages of superstition into the pure light of reason.

And that was the story for human civilization since the “Sketch” was published in 1794, because the concept of “progress” has since been hard-wired into the world-society we’ve built to promote it.  The problem, of course, is not merely limited to the barriers faced by reason in its pursuit of progress.  We’ve defeated monsters like Hitler, who are now in the dustbin of history.  Rather, the actual content promoted under the heading of reason and progress is now severely suspect.  I will pick one example to illustrate this point initially.  The international war machine, as it continually funds the proxy force for the transnational capitalist class into ever-continuing wars under the heading of “we can do no wrong,” rests upon the rational pillar of an argument that world society is somehow threatened by a fictional “terrorism” that kills 1/390th of the people who die in traffic accidents each year.  And do any of the activities of this vast machine which occupies a good chunk of Africa at this point do anything besides encourage blowback?

Every once in awhile, however, one sees and hears attempts to break through the great wall of magical thinking which counts as what the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci called “hegemony” while parading itself as the essence of reason while its patrons act as the public relations auxiliaries for what the elite powers-that-be regard as progress.  One such attempt is now up at Counterpunch — it’s titled “Capitalism and Climate Change” and it’s written by Alyssa Rohricht.  Rohricht lays it on the line:

In this series, I will examine how the capitalist system has brought us to climate disaster, and why it cannot get us out of it.

So what’s the fundamental problem with capitalism?  The author continues:

Yet reducing our consumptive habits is antithetical to the capitalist enterprise, which functions only if the economy is growing. We have created a world system where economic health is directly opposed to environmental health. Capitalism necessitates ever increasing resource use, while the natural capacities of the environment require a severe cutback in consumption.

Oh, but I know!  The problem is climate change deniers.  Right?  The problem can be solved by more “renewables and efficiency.”  That way we’ll just automatically “reduce carbon emissions.”  We don’t really need to change anything otherwise.  Magical thinking is da bomb y’know.This last piece of magical thinking appears in full stripes, although sweetened a bit, in Tom Hayden’s piece, “The Great Unifier: California Against Climate Change.”  Hayden’s thesis:

My dream is that California under Governor Jerry Brown’s leadership will become a multi-cultural world-class economy powered entirely by renewable resources and energy conservation, and a model to which President Barack Obama can point during the critical global talks on climate change in December 2015.

The problem, of course, is that it’s nice to have two drops in the bucket instead of one to show off to your world-ruling friends at the big conference, but what really needs to happen to mitigate climate change is an effort to shut down the oil and coal companies and to cease the production of fossil fuels altogether at some point while maintaining basic life necessity guarantees to ordinary people.  Fossil-fuel capital needs to be abolished, which ultimately means that all of capital needs to be controlled.Meanwhile the state of California is weighed down by an immense financial commitment to a prison-industrial complex and a university system that exists largely to pay off the fat salaries of administrators while giving the students a University of California education which the US News and World Report can no longer recommend.

We can see how thoroughly Hayden’s vision is compromised by his commitment to Governor Brown’s vision:

He is going to increase the percentage of our electricity generated from renewables, now at 23 percent, to at least 33 percent by 2020.

Nice, but not climatologically meaningful.  The problem is that Hayden’s language is that of “stimulus” and “New Deal,” when the problem is that we really need a smaller economy with less throughput that, simply put, consumes less.  We need, in short, a revolution, to replace the regime in which “progress” meant more of what Schumpeter called “creative destruction” with a regime in which “progress” is measured by the perfection of the arts of ecological stewardship.  Ecological economy, instead of capitalist economy.Now, it’s easy to credit Hayden with good intentions.  He is, after all, in favor of the fossil fuel divestment movement and the anti-fracking movement, as am I.  But he seems to have missed the main virtue behind these movements — they attack capital, which is the primary impediment to the art of ecological stewardship.  On the positive end of this, we need to emphasize that there are plenty of ways to “put people to work” that don’t depend on capital — let’s stop kissing the feet of the hegemonic philosophers who insist that all reform go through the “private sector.”

And to some extent Hayden recognizes that there is an economic barrier to the realization of his magical thinking; so for instance he says that “Every environmental organization will need to assure that communities of color are allocated a fair share of the resources for renewable energy and conservation programs.”  But this is still a matter of two drops in the bucket making better PR than one.  Here’s the nitty-gritty.

1) Let’s say we want to replace all of the gas guzzlers.  First off, we’ll have to make a bunch of new cars to replace the old ones; there’s a fossil-fuel commitment for you.  Then there’s the money-production angle for you.  You’re going to pay people to make electric cars that don’t run on fossil energy, so you can give them away.  You have to give them away.  People in California pay absurd rents and make paltry wages and can’t afford new cars.  At any rate, the potential for fraud and corruption goes way up when you’ve got that going.  The same problem arises if you’re going to give everyone a solar panel.  So you need a solution that is insured against fraud and corruption.  What you need to do is to create a communist infrastructure — a commune of communes, or a cooperative of cooperatives, where all are insured against ripoff because all are granted power and responsibility.

2) You want a “progressive” solution.  Right?  Tom Hayden argues that “Since the nature of the unregulated market is to widen inequality, only progressive public policies will galvanize majority support for the full transition to a clean energy future.”  But the point of “progressivism” in this era is to sell everyone on “realism” and corporate-friendly pseudo-solutions.  Did any of you see fellow marxist Slavoj Zizek’s critique of Thomas Piketty?  Piketty, as you may recall, criticized capitalism for favoring the rich, and then turned around and recommended more capitalism, except this time with higher taxes on the rich.  At any rate, here’s the core of Zizek’s critique of Piketty:

This is another aspect of his utopianism, my claim is that if you imagine a world organization where the measure proposed by Piketty can effectively be enacted, then the problems are already solved. Then already you have a total political reorganization, you have a global power which effectively can control capital, we already won.

Zizek’s reasoning applies just as firmly to Hayden and the other “capitalist reform” solutions to climate change as it does to Piketty here.  If you can imagine a world society that can successfully mitigate climate change, then in that society capital can be controlled, the revolution has been won, and why would we, triumphant over capital, stop with progressive reform?  If we had the power to enact progressive reform, we’d also have the power to do so much more — why not phase out fossil fuels, end hunger and poverty, reduce crime to near zero, humanize education, end the military, and begin the ecological regime of proper environmental stewardship?  Wouldn’t that count as “progress” too?And I’m sure that I’ve been accused of magical thinking many times myself.  What’s magical thinking is the notion that, when the rich folks have electric cars and the poor folks have a voucher for 2/5 of an electric car each, we’re all spontaneously going to stop using fossil fuels because we want to be kewl.  What’s magical thinking is the idea that we’re going to solve the environment problem while dragging around the capitalist ball-and-chain into the indefinite future.  Alternative energy markets do not displace fossil energy markets spontaneously — therefore we must push fossil fuel capital out of business through political action.  And this can only happen through a revolutionary change in our mode of governance — from government as a handmaiden of capital to government as a conduit for public survival.  Everything else that poses as a solution is magical thinking.  Half-baked pseudo-solutions that serve as nice public relations are “realistic,” but runaway climate change leading to a second Venus in orbit around the Sun is also a “realistic” outcome.

(also on at FDL)


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