18 March 2008

The Politics of Fear, Part II

How Many of Us?

Excerpted from Issue 6.

Necessity, the tyrant’s plea, Milton called it, and it’s no doubt possible that the compelling necessity of reducing carbon emissions may be invoked to justify the suspension of democratic politics. But Alex Gourevitch is worried not so much about the possibility of green tyranny as about environmentalism becoming an “antipolitics” that destroys civil society from within. In this scenario, political life would be dominated rhetorically by talk of security, of disaster prevention. A stealthily coercive model of shared identity through shared risk would displace a vigorous democratic politics in which the differing interests of citizens are acknowledged through conflict and compromise. Ultimately, the antipolitics of fear—as it would be more properly called—would deprive the person of his status as a political, even a social being; a man or woman would constitute, for public purposes, only a bare animal existence to be protected from the collapse of the natural environment and the engineered conditions sustaining that existence. This would be survival rather than life; and mere survival, no matter how comfortable or uncomfortable, is something less than being human.

It’s possible to accept that this would itself be a disaster without being so afraid that environmentalism might bring it about. The opposite development seems more likely: if global warming goes unaddressed, the disrepair into which our society falls may make constitutional government, not to mention a lively public sphere, sound like a quaint concept. Meanwhile, Agamben’s language of “bare life” can become a kind of cant, obscuring real problems: when forty-seven million Americans lack health insurance, can it really be, as Gourevitch says, that we have a politics “aimed at taming any kind of uncertainty that might threaten the individual’s health”? But the more important point is this: in a strange way, the politics of ecological anxiety is probably the only version of a utopian politics we can have, the only open path, if one exists at all, to that flourishing public life desired by Gourevitch and by no means taking place under the privatizing auspices of neoliberalism. Today there is no good way to talk about the society we want except in terms of what we fear.

Dreams, Freud thought, even the terrifying ones, were inevitably wish fulfillments— and this rule would seem to cover political nightmares more comprehensively than bad dreams suffered alone at night. In private life, after all, it’s sometimes possible to express your desires in a more or less lucid and straightforward way. In American political life, on the other hand, it has been impossible to talk openly about desire—the deep opposite of fear—at least since the 1960s, and this is probably true of other countries as well: the politics of desire outlined by Parisian students with spray paint in May ’68 now seems one of the embarrassing or at least useless features of that era.


The closest American politicians come to breathing a word about desire is to talk about hope, as Barack Obama is doing now. And to see the terminal weakness of hope rhetoric you need only recall the refrain of John Edwards’s speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention: “Hope is on the way.” Hope isn’t much—it’s not help, not happiness, not even security—but now even hope could only be hoped for. What happens to a deferral deferred? A depressing question.

Our taboo on desire owes something to the fact that all desire has its libidinal component, and so long as American politics concentrates mawkishly on the family—always working families, never simply working people—desire will seem an intrusive and inappropriate force. The other reason for Democrats to keep quiet about their desires is simply that they don’t have any they can recognize; for a generation or more, they have been in the literal sense a conservative party, mostly concerned with maintaining existing institutions of social welfare or moderating the pace at which they are dismantled. The Democrats never know what they want; they do know they’d like to go about it cautiously.

It hardly seems likely that Democrats will soon evolve any frank politics of desire—the desire (it is mine anyway) for a society just, sustainable, creative, and free. And the same goes for the traditional socialist left. Probably a larger portion of the global proletariat consists, today, of the superfluously large “reserve army of labor” than of wage laborers in factories or on farms, and no one can easily imagine a coordinated international movement led by the jobless inhabitants of slums. If we still imagine barricades being stormed, they are stormed by high seas.

Old-fashioned leftists sometimes object that green politics has substituted, as the ultimate opponent of capitalism, the environment for the working class. And in a way something similar is said by apologists for the suicidal neoliberalism that is the status quo; as Margaret Thatcher’s former chancellor of the exchequer has said, environmentalism “is profoundly hostile to capitalism and the market economy.” Both objections are correct—only neither counts as an objection. The fantasy of plenitude shared by capitalists and socialists for much of the 20th century needs to be abandoned. Wealth, as experienced by the rich of today, can neither trickle down nor be redistributed; already we burn too much fossil fuel in industrial agriculture and manufacture, the running of enormous appliance-filled households and offices, and the global transport of people and goods.

The nightmare, in good nightmare fashion, has something absurd and nearly inescapable about it: either we will begin running out of oil, or we won’t. If global oil production is already at or near its peak, the international economy may soon start shrinking—a terrible prospect when a social ethic of the fair distribution of diminishing total wealth exists perhaps nowhere in the world [see “More Blood, Less Oil,” n+1 Issue 3]. Or else, if optimists (of a sort) are correct, there may be oil to burn, at current or increased rates, until as late as 2050, in which case this is the way the world ends: with the steady purr of an internal combustion engine. It’s also possible that oil extraction will fall far below contemporary levels at the same time that there remain so many parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere that our world continues heating up even as its machinery slows down.

The sole alternative is to organize the world on a more local, modest, and (since so many people already have so little) egalitarian basis. Whatever happens will be frightening: to drift headlong toward disaster, to give up our life of convenience, or, more likely, to make painful changes without knowing whether they will suffice. But inside fear is also the desire for a different and better world, superior to ours not only because it might last, but because of the richer experience of life it would provide.

We have, today, a richly articulated market, and a lot of stunted lives. In order to live in any comfort, you must commodify the better part of your life: in this case, you engage in a restricted set of tasks for forty hours a week, or twice that many. The smaller, uncommodified portion of your life consists of shopping for necessities; of unremunerated domestic labor (washing, cooking, cleaning, child care, making repairs) that could be far more efficiently performed if tasks were pooled; and of accumulating the few or many luxuries you lack the leisure to enjoy. This is if you are lucky, or while you are lucky. Your pleasures, in the meantime, are guilty pleasures, since it is people like you whose lifestyle is ruining the climate, a fact your children will easily comprehend.

This description in some ways leaves out artists, entrepreneurs, socialites, monks, nuns, professional athletes, and politicians; but it also leaves out chattel slaves, of whom there are more today than lived even during the heyday of the plantations. Proportionally speaking, none of these groups count for much these days. A more significant category, occupied by some two-fifths of economically active humanity, is that of the informal economy, where people with nothing but their labor to sell—and no buyers—eke out a precarious, unprotected existence in a kind of frenetic unemployment. So it is that there are people whom capitalism pretends to cherish by never letting them rest; others that capitalism has no use for at all; and the narrow, specialized labors of both groups are pressed into the service of heaping up goods and opportunities for those who can hardly enjoy them—an arrangement the price of which is merely global warming. The common term for this collective situation is “freedom.” Likewise the word for our constant anxiety is “comfort.” We know this life can’t be sustained. And many of us want a different life anyway. Of course the old-fashioned leftist will smile and ask: How many of you? That’s a good question.

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