21 March 2008

The Politics of Fear, Part IV

The Return of Al Gore

Alex Gourevitch is right to say that the campaign against global warming can lead to left fantasies of an antipolitics of emergency. I’ll vouch for this, because I have these fantasies myself.

After the non-election of 2000, Al Gore temporarily withdrew from public life. He became fat, bearded, and to all appearances depressed. During the grim Bush years after September 11, 2001, he occasionally came out of his burrow and, unlike all the trim, clean-shaven, and optimistic figures who held active hopes in electoral politics, told the truth. Global warming was much on his mind. But it was woven into an entire vision of misplaced priorities and moneyed control of politics. His well-known August 2003 speech at NYU integrated the threat of global warming with deceptions in Iraq, failures of Bush’s economic policy, and the illegality of the administration’s “war on terror” methods—delivered in plain language no Democratic candidate for the 2004 elections dared to approach. From that time forward, I cherished an absurd hope: that a fat, bearded, and depressed Gore, elected President, could give us our only way out of a destructive centrist or rightist spiral and save America and the world.

Gore’s environmental and ecological passions, his emergency sense, would be the linchpin to a prophetic, truth-telling presidency. In the name of the climate, he would begin saying “no” to interests to whom American presidents are obliged to say “yes.” “No” to the oil industry, looking for perks. “No” to the auto industry, seeking a continuation of bad fuel economy for “national competitiveness.” “No” to the builders of coal-fired power plants. “No” to agribusiness. And finally, “no” to American citizens who want their consumption of energy, goods, and food to remain what it is! Inured to criticism, as fat as he liked and, by this stage, wearing a full beard like Tolstoy or Karl Marx, Al Gore would say “yes” to the American poor, then to everyone below the median income, then to a secure middle class—yes to a redistribution of wealth, the essential social change which could go hand in hand with a more modest, nonpolluting, nonwasteful nation. Yes to transforming our expectations about how many goods and resources we are entitled to, by securing the birthright of equality for all!

Impossible and stupid? Antidemocratic, because Gore would be calling the shots without compromise, legislative representation, or polls? Yes, all of those things. I kept thinking of my fantasy under the name “Only a Gore Can Save Us,” to remind myself that dictator-fantasies lead nowhere good: “Only a God can save us” is remembered in intellectual history as a troubling phrase from Martin Heidegger, a sign of his willingness to leave the future—and all its problems—to mysticism, or to some other force outside of normal politics.


As early as 1992, Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man told us that two exigencies remained that, were they ever fully to flower, would interrupt his vision of universal history as the gradual progress of democracy, free markets, and the economic development of the entire world. One was radical Islam; the other, “environmental collapse.” (He also included world-destroying nuclear war, a possibility we shouldn’t entirely remove from our radar.)

Fukuyama was neither a seer nor a soothsayer. September 11 did not inaugurate Islamic eschatological ideology nor the right’s opportunistic and strategic responses to it. Nor did the current melting close to the poles inaugurate ecological ideology and the left’s strategic recognition of it as a means to antigrowth economic reorganization. I remember reading news articles about global warming (then called the “greenhouse effect”) for the first time around 1987; Congressional hearings on the dangers of global warming were held in 1988 and 1989, the latter chaired by a beardless Gore. Fukuyama was paying intelligent attention to think-tank briefings at Cato or RAND or even the SSRC that described where political advantage could be gained within the framework of possible global futures.

In other words, there is indeed, and has long been, a correspondence in strategic political thinking between forms of “emergency” demands to be made in response to radical Islam and those to be made for ecological catastrophe. It has become clear that the vivid threat of catastrophes (a worldwide push by violent antimodern Islamism, the melting of the polar caps and oceanic inundation of significant parts of the dry surface of the earth), without their full realization, can allow portions of the right and left to push for preemptive settlements which favor their ultimate ends. The right pushes in the “war on terror” for the preemptive dominance of existing concentrations of wealth, backed by US military power, in the economic development of recalcitrant parts of the world.

The left might have the opportunity, in the crisis of global warming, to preempt as well—to tip the ongoing rulemaking of the economic world-system in favor of regulation rather than laissez-faire; to restrain the growth of current concentrations of capital within extracting and polluting sectors; and to reintroduce an essentially aesthetic criterion into the ongoing dollar valuation of the entire world. Aesthetic in this good sense, which ought to benefit rich and poor alike: “I like the beauty of air I can breathe, trees I can see, food that doesn’t poison me, the continued existence of animals seen and unseen.”


How bad would such preemption be? And how bad were my Gore fantasies, really?

The two greatest victories for the left in the history of the United States occurred under conditions of a state of emergency and within a security paradigm. They both involved Presidents who abused their Constitutional limits (without permanently damaging our system) for purposes of human equality and liberation.

One victory was the emancipation of slaves under Lincoln, a Republican, in the declared emergency of the Civil War—followed by a less than universally beloved Fourteenth Amendment which allowed both the immediate liberation of American blacks as equal rights-holders and the late- 20th-century eruption of a range of equal protections for other groups.

The other was the creation of the modern liberal welfare state by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, in the apparent emergency of an economic depression which his policies may or may not have done much to solve before the arrival of increased production in the Second World War. Yet his efforts gained the country Social Security, a revision of the tax code to really levy greater taxes on the rich and on corporations, the National Labor Relations Board and a guarantee of collective bargaining backed by the government, the insurance of small accountholders reliant on large banks, and a general acceptance of the role of government to regulate the economy, protect the middle class, and actively aid the worst-off. (Gourevitch, in his professional activities, begins with FDR and the New Deal in his work on the origin of “security” politics in America. “Social Security,” after all, has its name for a reason. As was true of the key elements of the welfare state worldwide, Social Security partook of a version of the security paradigm in which the pacification of the conditions of life for individuals was modeled on defense in a state of war.)

FDR was, in his way, the closest thing the US had to a dictator before the time of George W. Bush. Elected to four terms in office, working with Democratic majorities in both houses for his key legislation, he was also the progenitor of a failed and utterly illegal and unconstitutional attempt to pack the Supreme Court when it got in his way. The steady expansion of executive power in the US in the 20th century has meant that Presidents can rub up against these opportunities of emergency power with increasing frequency, even when the electorate hasn’t voted them in with large legislative majorities to back their programs. As a long-range goal, it would be a great blessing to diminish or even nearly eradicate the presidency and restore the Congress as the mainspring of democratic representation. In the short term, however, we face the prospect, in our two-party system, essentially of swapping tyrants. With a genuine climate crisis facing us, and necessary measures to halt it which will often be opposed to business interests, and which will be international in scope (in international conflicts it may be that the executive branch, rather than the Congress, moves more sure-footedly and effectively), it really seems preferable to have a tyrant concerned with global warming, even to the point of “emergency.”


So: Ecological catastrophe does inspire fantasies on the left of a state of emergency. This, in turn, does mirror elements of the deceitful war on terror. It does operate within a security paradigm. But given the present goals and constitution of the US left, this may not be such a bad thing. The left retains, in its inner character, goals of liberation and safeguards against violence which the right does not. Thus, tyrannical though it can sound, one has to say that there may be advantages for all humanity, and fewer risks to human life, from a left emergency: from “our” emergency rather than theirs, from “our” security rather than theirs.

This one-sided sense of right is easier to declare as a matter of principle, however, because it seems likely to have so few firm consequences. The reality of the political situation is deflating, depressing, but safely “political” by Gourevitch’s standards. The Democratic party, potential gatekeeper of change to help the environment, will not represent the liberatory left. Measures to mitigate global warming, if taken, will occur within an economic order where capitalism, at best in the form of “mixed economy,” and most likely within pro-growth (and pro-inequality) models, will blunt or co-opt whatever radical social possibilities exist within ecological critique.

As for the antidemocratic threat lurking inside the left fantasy of an emergency “of our own”—a left overriding of citizens’ wishes—it is unlikely to come true not only because really dramatic changes in our lives or economy seem unlikely, but because citizens’ wishes change in a different and less governmentalized fashion than we acknowledge. This is where Gourevitch’s gestures toward “bare life” and a biological politics of citizen health become so important. It’s easy to assume that Americans care most about their short-term economic interests: we want low gas prices, more power and more resource consumption more cheaply, and are ready to let future generations go hang (or roast, or learn to swim above the new Atlantis that was New York). And yet if you look at other aspirations and behaviors— in dieting, nonsmoking, exercise, medical remedies—you get a different sense of Americans, as a nation of people who like to go along with self-deprivation and self-regulation (plus purchases of many new products!) to transform and secure their sense of a permanent, endlessly remediable self. The extension from care-of-self to care-of-planet-around-self is only a tiny step. These impulses begin altogether apart from presidential or top-level politics; they are considered eminently democratic because government links are so distant. Problems are publicized by assorted grassroots and government-private groups, reported by the news media, then inundated with “expertise” that ranges between hard science and lifestyle-tip rumor. The media-driven desire for an “environment-friendly” self-regulation, too, will ultimately be pushed along by new business interests devoted to serving or exploiting the new healthy (in this case, “green”) individual.

This may be where we are heading with global warming: to a similar mixture of the ascetic and the expansive, health- and world-transformation as personal lifestyle satisfaction. Suppose, for instance, that the campaign against global warming turns out to resemble less the war on terror than the campaign against public smoking. You’ll get a democratically acceptable list of disappointments: the slight paternalism of slow public changes of habit, rather than vigorous public argument; “political” measures which may not go far enough to save us from environmental consequences, but aren’t tyrannical either; and changes in daily life with which “politics” as such seem to have nothing to do. A top-down “politics of fear” will not be the issue. The populace will be working on itself in the name of the globe.

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