Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Year of Dreaming Dangerously

Slavoj Zizek. Verso (Norton, dist.), $14.95 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-78168-042-1

Renegade philosopher and cultural critic Zizek (Living in the End Times) again attempts to goad us from our comfortable political positions and rethink the philosophical and social meaning of 2011’s major protest movements—including the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. Drawing heavily on Marx and Hegel, Zizek probes the nature of these movements as they seek to fight the system of antagonistic capitalism without contributing to its enhanced functioning. For example, those involved in Occupy Wall Street, he observes, are “reacting to a system in the process of gradually destroying itself” as they wake “from a dream that has turned into a nightmare.” Similarly, despite the democratic elections forced by the Arab Spring, such protest movements have not flourished, and the cultural landscape is eerily bleak for the moment. Zizek argues that subterranean dissatisfaction still exists. We should view such movements as “limited, distorted (sometimes even perverted) fragments of a utopian future” whose greater potential flickers in and out of dormancy. Zizek’s staccato prose is often maddening as it jumps quickly from idea to idea, often repetitiously, without offering us a pause to ponder, but he’s as provocative as ever, forcing us to confront contentious matters head-on without flinching. (Oct.)

Monday, July 30, 2012


"Unless you think I'm a fool."

US Justice Scalia steps up criticism of healthcare ruling

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on Sunday renewed his criticism of Chief Justice John Roberts' reasoning in upholding President Barack Obama's 2010 healthcare law and also said the Constitution undoubtedly permits some gun control.

The 76-year-old Scalia - a leading conservative on the court who has served as a justice since 1986 - also was asked whether he would time his retirement in order to let a conservative future president appoint a like-minded jurist.

"I don't know. I haven't decided when to retire," Scalia told the "Fox News Sunday" program. "... My wife doesn't want me hanging around the house - I know that."

"Of course, I would not like to be replaced by someone who immediately sets about undoing everything that I've tried to do for 25 years, 26 years, sure. I mean, I shouldn't have to tell you that. Unless you think I'm a fool."

Roberts, also a conservative, sided with the nine-member court's four liberals in upholding the constitutionality of Obama's healthcare law, considered the Democratic president's signature domestic policy achievement.

Scalia joined in a sharply worded dissent on the day of the June 28 ruling and added to his criticism on Sunday.

A central provision of the law is the "individual mandate" that most Americans obtain health insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty. The ruling found that this penalty "may reasonably be characterized as a tax" and thus would be constitutionally permissible under the power of Congress to impose taxes.

"There is no way to regard this penalty as a tax. ... In order to save the constitutionality, you cannot give the text a meaning it will not bear," Scalia said.

"You don't interpret a penalty to be a pig. It can't be a pig."

Supreme Court justices rarely give media interviews. Scalia is making the rounds to promote "Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts," a new book he co-wrote.
Scalia brushed off Obama's comments aimed at the court regarding the healthcare law and a campaign finance ruling.

"What can he do to me? Or to any of us?" Scalia said. "We have life tenure and we have it precisely so that we will not be influenced by politics, by threats from anybody."

He was asked "why you push people's buttons every once in a while." Scalia said, "It's fun to push the buttons."


Scalia wrote the high court's 2008 ruling that a ban on handguns in the U.S. capital violated the right to bear arms enshrined in the Constitution's Second Amendment.

In light of the July 20 massacre in which a gunman killed 12 moviegoers in Colorado,
Scalia was asked whether legislatures could ban the sale of semiautomatic weapons.
He said the 2008 ruling stated that future cases will determine "what limitations upon the right to bear arms are permissible. Some undoubtedly are."

Scalia - a proponent of the idea that the Constitution must be interpreted using the meaning of its text at the time it was written - cited "a tort called affrighting" that existed when the Second Amendment was drafted in the 18th century making it a misdemeanor to carry "a really horrible weapon just to scare people like a head ax."

"So yes, there are some limitations that can be imposed," he said. "I mean, obviously, the amendment does not apply to arms that cannot be hand-carried. It's to 'keep and bear' (arms). So, it doesn't apply to cannons. But I suppose there are handheld rocket launchers that can bring down airplanes that will have to be ... decided."

Regarding the death penalty, Scalia said opponents want it struck under the ban on cruel and unusual punishment included in the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

"But it's absolutely clear that the American people never voted to proscribe the death penalty," he said. "They adopted a cruel and unusual punishment clause at the time when every state had the death penalty and every state continued to have it. Nobody thought that the Eighth Amendment prohibited it."

Scalia also took issue with decades-old Supreme Court precedent, saying the Constitution does not provide Americans with a right to privacy, despite a landmark 1965 ruling finding that it does. That ruling helped pave the way for the court's 1973 ruling legalizing abortion.

"There is no right to privacy - no generalized right to privacy," Scalia said. "No one ever thought that the American people ever voted to prohibit limitations on abortion. I mean, there is nothing in the Constitution that says that."

Scalia also was asked about his past criticism of rulings by Supreme Court colleagues in which he called them "folly" and "sheer applesauce."

"I don't know that I'm cantankerous," he said. "I express myself vividly."

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Bill Trott)

Happiness is the Betrayal of Desire

Tim Lott: You've got to fight for your right to frown
Our writer is sceptical about those who find it easy to be happy

By Tim Lott

One of my favourite quotes comes from the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who, when asked what he found most depressing about the world, answered "the happiness of stupid people".

It is so much easier to be cheerful when you are a slack-jawed nitwit. This is something that was not mentioned in the publicity around last week's first publication by the Office for National Statistics of the happiness survey.

When I try to visualise happy faces at random, the images my brain comes up with – Alan Titchmarsh, Jeremy Clarkson, Sarah Palin, Cliff Richard, or, worst of all, Nigel Farage – are unappealing as role models.

But smart, creative people aren't going to figure because they tend to suffer a disproportionate amount of unhappiness. Bruce Springsteen, who revealed last week that he was suicidal at the height of his success in the 1980s, is just one of the endless examples.

One research finding after another has demonstrated that happy people have a less accurate view of reality than depressed people. All this leads me to an uncomfortable conclusion for happiness academics – being happy is not the most important thing in life.
A re-statement of stoic principles is overdue. My father's generation did not expect to be happy. It was the last thing on their minds. They simply wanted to muddle through, and if happiness came, then they considered themselves lucky. This attitude saved them the daily pain of disappointed hopes.

The trouble is that we have followed the American path of thinking that happiness is not only a practical goal but a moral imperative. People who are unhappy are perceived as dangerous failures. So-called "negative" people are to be shunned, as if they carried a dangerous, transmutable virus.

I have a face like a collapsed cabbage when I am in a bad mood and people in the street are inclined to ask me – no, tell me – to cheer up. I resist the temptation to tell them I have a week to live or to punch them on the nose.

What I really want to ask them is what gives them the right to decide how I should or shouldn't feel? I would like to be happy all the time, of course. But it would be inhuman.
There has been a spate of literature that suggests that it is the happy people who are the sick ones. Eric G Wilson's Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy points out how "generative melancholy" can be a hugely creative force. Barbara Ehrenreich's Smile or Die is a counterblast against American "positive thinking", the idea that every disaster or setback is an "opportunity" for "moving on".

But the world is run not by realistic melancholic introverts, but fantasising, optimistic extroverts – politicians, for instance, and bankers. This is good, to an extent. We need people who can believe in success against all the odds – believe that anything can be possible, believe that change can come, believe that they can make huge unearned profits.
But we need pessimists too. Sadness should not be taboo – it should be respected, like the priest and the funeral director. We treat it like the embarrassing guest at the wedding, we want it to shut up and go away, but it is in all our hearts and so it should be. Life is brief, life is fatal, and it is packed with small losses as well as small joys.

Springsteen would never score highly on the national happiness index. Neither would I, or most of the people I admire. I like happy people, and I like to be around them. But don't disown the frown. Without it we'd be – well, American. Or, even worse, Nigel Farage.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Left Needs an Economic Plan


by T. J. CLARK


Left intellectuals, like most intellectuals, are not good at politics; especially if we mean by the latter, as I shall be arguing we should, the everyday detail, drudgery and charm of performance. Intellectuals get the fingering wrong. Up on stage they play too many wrong notes. But one thing they may be good for: sticking to the concert-hall analogy, they are sometimes the bassists in the back row whose groaning establishes the key of politics for a moment, and even points to a possible new one. And it can happen, though occasionally, that the survival of a tradition of thought and action depends on this—on politics being transposed to a new key. This seems to me true of the left in our time.
These notes are addressed essentially (regrettably) to the left in the old capitalist heartland—the left in Europe. [3] Perhaps they will resonate elsewhere. They have nothing to say about capitalism’s long-term invulnerability, and pass no judgement—what fool would try to in present circumstances?—on the sureness of its management of its global dependencies, or the effectiveness of its military humanism. The only verdict presupposed in what follows is a negative one on the capacity of the left—the actually existing left, as we used to say—to offer a perspective in which capitalism’s failures, and its own, might make sense. By ‘perspective’ I mean a rhetoric, a tonality, an imagery, an argument, and a temporality.

By ‘left’ I mean a root-and-branch opposition to capitalism. But such an opposition has nothing to gain, I shall argue, from a series of overweening and fantastical predictions about capitalism’s coming to an end. Roots and branches are things in the present. The deeper a political movement’s spadework, the more complete its focus on the here and now. No doubt there is an alternative to the present order of things. Yet nothing follows from this—nothing deserving the name political. Left politics is immobilized, it seems to me, at the level of theory and therefore of practice, by the idea that it should spend its time turning over the entrails of the present for signs of catastrophe and salvation. Better an infinite irony at prescrai and maruflicchio—a peasant irony, with an earned contempt for futurity—than a politics premised, yet again, on some terracotta multitude waiting to march out of the emperor’s tomb.

Is this pessimism? Well, yes. But what other tonality seems possible in the face of the past ten years? How are we meant to understand the arrival of real ruination in the order of global finance (‘This sucker could go down’, as George Bush told his cabinet in September 2008) and the almost complete failure of left responses to it to resonate beyond the ranks of the faithful? Or to put the question another way: if the past decade is not proof that there are no circumstances capable of reviving the left in its nineteenth and twentieth-century form, then what would proof be like?

It is a bitter moment. Politics, in much of the old previously immovable centre, seems to be taking on a more and more ‘total’ form—an all-or-nothing character for those living through it—with each successive month. And in reality (as opposed to the fantasy world of Marxist conferences) this is as unnerving for left politics as for any other kind. The left is just as unprepared for it. The silence of the left in Greece, for example—its inability to present a programme outlining an actual, persuasive default economic policy, a year-by-year vision of what would be involved in taking ‘the Argentine road’—is indicative. And in no way is this meant as a sneer. When and if a national economy enters into crisis in the present interlocking global order, what has anyone to say—in any non-laughable detail—about ‘socialism in one country’ or even ‘partly detached pseudo-nation-state non-finance-capital-driven capitalism’? (Is the left going to join the Eurosceptics on their long march? Or put its faith in the proletariat of Guangdong?)

The question of capitalism—precisely because the system itself is once again posing (agonizing over) the question, and therefore its true enormity emerges from behind the shadow play of parties—has to be bracketed. It cannot be made political. The left should turn its attention to what can.

It is difficult to think historically about the present crisis, even in general terms—comparisons with 1929 seem not to help—and therefore to get the measure of its mixture of chaos and rappel à l’ordre. Tear gas refreshes the army of bondholders; the Greek for General Strike is on everyone’s lips; Goldman Sachs rules the world. Maybe the years since 1989 could be likened to the moment after Waterloo in Europe—the moment of Restoration and Holy Alliance, of apparent world-historical immobility (though vigorous reconstellation of the productive forces) in the interim between 1815 and 1848. In terms of a thinking of the project of Enlightenment—my subject remains the response of political thought to wholesale change in circumstances—this was a moment between paradigms. The long arc of rational and philosophical critique—the arc from Hobbes to Descartes to Diderot to Jefferson to Kant—had ended. Looking with hindsight, we can see that beneath the polished surface of Restoration the elements of a new vision of history were assembling: peculiar mutations of utilitarianism and political economy, the speculations of Saint-Simon, Fourier’s counterfactuals, the intellectual energies of the Young Hegelians. But it was, at the time (in the shadow of Metternich, Ingres, the later Coleridge), extremely difficult to see these elements for what they were, let alone as capable of coalescing into a form of opposition—a fresh conception of what it was that had to be opposed, and an intuition of a new standpoint from which opposition might go forward. This is the way Castlereagh’s Europe resembles our own: in its sense that a previous language and set of presuppositions for emancipation have run into the sand, and its realistic uncertainty as to whether the elements of a different language are to be found at all in the general spectacle of frozen politics, ruthless economy and enthusiasm (as always) for the latest dim gadget.

The question for the left at present, in other words, is how deep does its reconstruction of the project of Enlightenment have to go? ‘How far down?’ Some of us think, ‘Seven levels of the world’. The book we need to be reading—in preference to The Coming Insurrection, I feel—is Christopher Hill’s The Experience of Defeat. That is: the various unlikely and no doubt dangerous voices I find myself drawing on in these notes—Nietzsche in spite of everything, Bradley on tragedy, Burkert’s terrifying Homo Necans, Hazlitt and Bruegel at their most implacable, Moses Wall in the darkness of 1659, Benjamin in 1940—come up as resources for the left only at a moment of true historical failure. We read them only when events oblige us to ask ourselves what it was, in our previous stagings of transfiguration, that led to the present debacle.

The word ‘left’ in my usage refers, of course, to a tradition of politics hardly represented any longer in the governments and oppositions we have. (It seems quaint now to dwell on the kinds of difference within that tradition once pointed to by the prefix ‘ultra’. After sundown all cats look grey.) Left, then, is a term denoting an absence; and this near non-existence ought to be explicit in a new thinking of politics. But it does not follow that the left should go on exalting its marginality, in the way it is constantly tempted to—exulting in the glamour of the great refusal, and consigning to outer darkness the rest of an unregenerate world. That way literariness lies. The only left politics worth the name is, as always, the one that looks its insignificance in the face, but whose whole interest is in what it might be that could turn the vestige, slowly or suddenly, into the beginning of a ‘movement’. Many and bitter will be the things sacrificed—the big ideas, the revolutionary stylistics—in the process.

This leads me to two kinds of question, which structure the rest of these notes. First, what would it be like for left politics not to look forward—to be truly present-centred, non-prophetic, disenchanted, continually ‘mocking its own presage’? Leaving behind, that is, in the whole grain and frame of its self-conception, the last afterthoughts and images of the avant-garde. And a second, connected question: could left politics be transposed into a tragic key? Is a tragic sense of life possible for the left—for a politics that remains recognizably in touch with the tradition of Marx, Raspail, Morris, Luxemburg, Gramsci, Platonov, Sorel, Pasolini? Isn’t that tradition rightly—indelibly—unwilling to dwell on the experience of defeat?

What do I mean, then, by tragedy, or the tragic conception of life? The idea applied to politics is strange, maybe unwelcome, and therefore my treatment of it will be plain; which need not, in this instance, mean banal. Bradley is a tremendous late-Victorian guide; better, I think, because more political, than all the great theorists and classicists who followed; and I choose him partly because he is such a good example of the kind of middle wisdom—the rejected high style—that the left will have to rediscover in its bourgeois past. He addresses his students (colonial servants in the making) mainly about Shakespeare, but almost everything in his general presentation of the subject resonates with politics more widely.

Tragedy, we know, is pessimistic about the human condition. Its subject is suffering and calamity, the constant presence of violence in human affairs, the extraordinary difficulty of reconciling that violence with a rule of law or a pattern of agreed social sanction. It turns on failure and self-misunderstanding, and above all on a fall from a great height—a fall that frightens and awes those who witness it because it seems to speak to a powerlessness in man, and a general subjection to a Force or Totality derived from the very character of things. Tragedy is about greatness come to nothing. But that is why it is not depressing. ‘[Man] may be wretched and he may be awful’, says Bradley, ‘but he is not small. His lot may be heart-rending and mysterious, but it is not contemptible’. ‘It is necessary that [the tragic project] should have so much of greatness that in its error and fall we may be vividly conscious of the possibilities of human nature’. [4] Those last two words have traditionally made the left wince, and I understand why. But they may be reclaimable: notice that for Bradley nature and possibility go together.

Bradley has a great passage on ‘what [he] ventures to describe as the centre of the tragic impression’. I quote it in full:

This central feeling is the impression of waste. With Shakespeare, at any rate, the pity and fear which are stirred by the tragic story seem to unite with, and even merge in, a profound sense of sadness and mystery, which is due to this impression of waste . . . We seem to have before us a type of the mystery of the whole world, the tragic fact which extends far beyond the limits of tragedy. Everywhere, from the crushed rocks beneath our feet to the soul of man, we see power, intelligence, life and glory, which astound us and seem to call for our worship. And everywhere we see them perishing, devouring one another and destroying themselves, often with dreadful pain, as though they came into being for no other end. Tragedy is the typical form of this mystery, because that greatness of soul which it exhibits oppressed, conflicting and destroyed, is the highest existence in our view. It forces the mystery upon us, and it makes us realize so vividly the worth of that which is wasted that we cannot possibly seek comfort in the reflection that all is vanity. [5]

One thing to be said in passing about this paragraph—but I mean it as more than an aside—is that it can serve as a model of the tone of politics in a tragic key. The tone is grown up. And maybe that is why it inevitably will register as remote, even a trifle outlandish, in a political culture as devoted as ours to a ventriloquism of ‘youth’. The present language of politics, left and right, participates fully in the general infantilization of human needs and purposes that has proved integral to consumer capitalism. (There is a wonderful counter-factual desperation to the phenomenon. For consumer society is, by nature—by reason of its real improvement in ‘living standards’—grey-haired. The older the average age of its population, we might say, the more slavishly is its cultural apparatus geared to the wishes of sixteen-year-olds.) And this too the left must escape from. Gone are the days when ‘infantile disorder’ was a slur—an insult from Lenin, no less—that one part of the left could hope to reclaim and transfigure. A tragic voice is obliged to put adolescence behind it. No more Rimbaud, in other words—no more apodictic inside-out, no more elated denunciation.

Here again is Bradley. ‘The tragic world is a world of action’, he tells us,
and action is the translation of thought into reality. We see men and women confidently attempting it. They strike into the existing order of things in pursuance of their ideas. But what they achieve is not what they intended; it is terribly unlike it. They understand nothing, we say to ourselves, of the world on which they operate. They fight blindly in the dark, and the power that works through them makes them the instrument of a design that is not theirs. They act freely, and yet their action binds them hand and foot. And it makes no difference whether they meant well or ill. [6]

Politics in a tragic key, then, will operate always with a sense of the horror and danger built into human affairs. ‘And everywhere we see them perishing, devouring one another and destroying themselves’. This is a mystery. But (again quoting Bradley, this time pushing him specifically in our direction) ‘tragedy is the . . . form of this mystery [that best allows us to think politically], because the greatness of soul which it exhibits oppressed, conflicting and destroyed, is the highest existence in our view. It forces the mystery upon us’. And it localizes the mystery, it stops it from being an immobilizing phantom—it has any one politics (for instance, our own) be carried on in the shadow of a specific political catastrophe.

Our catastrophe—our Thebes—is the seventy years from 1914 to 1989. And of course to say that the central decades of the twentieth century, at least as lived out in Europe and its empires, were a kind of charnel house is to do no more than repeat common wisdom. Anyone casting an eye over a serious historical treatment of the period—the one I never seem to recover from is Mark Mazower’s terrible conspectus, Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (1998)—is likely to settle for much the same terms. ‘The Century of Violence’, I remember an old textbook calling it. [7] The time of human smoke.

The political question is this, however. Did the century’s horrors have a shape? Did they obey a logic or follow from a central determination—however much the contingencies of history (Hitler’s charisma, Lenin’s surviving the anarchist’s bullet, the psychology of Bomber Harris) intervened? Here is where the tragic perspective helps. It allows us not to see a shape or logic—a development from past to future—to the last hundred years. It opens us, I think rightly, to a vision of the period as catastrophe in the strict sense: unfolding pell-mell from Sarajevo on, certainly until the 1950s (and if we widen our focus to Mao’s appalling ‘Proletarian Cultural Revolution’—in a sense the last paroxysm of a European fantasy of politics—well on into the 1970s): a false future entwined with a past, both come suddenly from nowhere, overtaking the certainties of Edwardian London and Vienna; a chaos formed from an unstoppable, unmappable criss-cross of forces: the imagined communities of nationalism, the pseudo-religions of class and race, the dream of an ultimate subject of History, the new technologies of mass destruction, the death-throes of the ‘white man’s burden’, the dismal realities of inflation and unemployment, the haphazard (but then accelerating) construction of mass parties, mass entertainments, mass gadgets and accessories, standardized everyday life. The list is familiar. And I suppose that anyone trying to write the history that goes with it is bound to opt, consciously or by default, for one among the various forces at work as predominant. There must be a heart of the matter.

Which leads to the question of Marxism. Marxism, it now comes clear, was most productively a theory—a set of descriptions—of bourgeois society and the way it would come to grief. It had many other aspects and ambitions, but this was the one that ended up least vitiated by chiliasm or scientism, the diseases of the cultural formation Marxism came out of. At its best (in Marx himself, in Lukács during the 1920s, in Gramsci, in Benjamin and Adorno, in Brecht, in Bakhtin, in Attila József, in the Sartre of ‘La conscience de classe chez Flaubert’) Marxism went deeper into the texture of bourgeois beliefs and practices than any other description save the novel. But about bourgeois society’s ending it was notoriously wrong. It believed that the great positivity of the nineteenth-century order would end in revolution—meaning a final acceleration (but also disintegration) of capitalism’s productive powers, the recalibration of economics and politics, and breakthrough to an achieved modernity. This was not to be. Certainly bourgeois society—the cultural world that Malevich and Gramsci took for granted—fell into dissolution. But it was destroyed, so it transpired, not by a fusion and fission of the long-assembled potentials of capitalist industry and the emergence of a transfigured class community, but by the vilest imaginable parody of both. Socialism became National Socialism, Communism became Stalinism, modernity morphed into crisis and crash, new religions of Volk and Gemeinschaft took advantage of the technics of mass slaughter. Franco, Dzerzhinsky, Earl Haig, Eichmann, Von Braun, Mussolini, Teller and Oppenheimer, Jiang Qing, Kissinger, Pinochet, Pol Pot, Ayman al-Zawahiri. This is the past that our politics has as its matrix. It is our Thebes.

But again, be careful. Tragedy is a mystery not a chamber of horrors. It is ordinary and endemic. Thebes is not something we can put behind us. No one looking in the eyes of the poor peasants in the 1930 photograph, lined up with their rakes and Stalinist catch-phrases, off to bludgeon a few kulaks down by the railway station—looking in the eyes of these dupes and murderers, dogs fighting over a bone, and remembering, perhaps with Platonov’s help, the long desperation the camera does not see—no one who takes a look at the real history of the twentieth century, in other words, can fail to experience the ‘sense of sadness and mystery’ Bradley points to, ‘which is due to the impression of waste . . . And everywhere we see them perishing, devouring one another and destroying themselves . . . as though they came into being for no other end’.

However we may disagree about the detail of the history the kolkhozniks in the photo are living, at least let us do them the justice not to pretend it was epic. ‘Historical materialism must renounce the epic element in history. It blasts the epoch [it studies] out of the reified “movement of history”. But it also explodes the epoch’s homogeneity, and intersperses it with ruins—that is, with the present’. [8] The shed on the right in the photo might as well be a Lager, and the banner read Arbeit macht frei.

‘The world is now very dark and barren; and if a little light should break forth, it would mightily refresh it. But alas: man would be lifted up above himself and distempered by it at present, and afterwards he would die again and become more miserable’: this is the Puritan revolutionary Isaac Penington in 1654, confronting the decline of the Kingdom of Saints. [9] Penington thinks of the situation in terms of the Fall, naturally, but his attitude to humanity can be sustained, and I think ought to be, without the theological background. His speaking to the future remains relevant. And it can coexist fully with the most modest, most moderate, of materialisms—the kind we need. Here for example is Moses Wall, writing to John Milton in 1659—when the days of the English republic were numbered:

You complain of the Non-progressency of the Nation, and of its retrograde motion of late, in liberty and spiritual truths. It is much to be bewailed; but yet let us pity human frailty. When those who made deep protestations of their zeal for our Liberty, being instated in power, shall betray the good thing committed to them, and lead us back to Egypt, and by that force which we gave them to win us Liberty, hold us fast in chains; what can poor people do? You know who they were that watched our Saviour’s Sepulchre to keep him from rising.

(Wall means soldiers. He knows about standing armies.)

Besides, whilst people are not free but straitened in accommodations for life, their Spirits will be dejected and servile: and conducing to [reverse this], there should be an improving of our native commodities, as our Manufactures, our Fishery, our Fens, Forests, and Commons, and our Trade at Sea, &c. which would give the body of the nation a comfortable Subsistence . . . [10]

Still a maximalist programme.

A tragic perspective on politics is inevitably linked, as Wall’s letter suggests, to the question of war and its place in the history of the species. Or perhaps we should say: to the interleaved questions of armed conflict, organized annihilation, human psychology and sociality, the city- and then the nation-state, and the particular form in which that something we call ‘the economy’ came into being. I take seriously the idea of the ancient historians that the key element in the transition to a monetized economy may not have been so much the generalization of trade between cultures (where kinds of barter went on functioning adequately) as the spread of endemic warfare, the rise of large professional armies, and the need for transportable, believable, on-the-spot payment for same. [11] And with money and mass killing came a social imaginary—a picture of human nature—to match.

‘When, in a battle between cities’, says Nietzsche,
the victor, according to the rights of war, puts the whole male population to the sword and sells all the women and children into slavery, we see, in the sanctioning of such a right, that the Greek regarded a full release of his hatred as a serious necessity; at such moments pent-up, swollen sensation found relief: the tiger charged out, wanton cruelty flickering in its terrible eyes. Why did the Greek sculptor again and again have to represent war and battles, endlessly repeated, human bodies stretched out, their sinews taut with hatred or the arrogance of triumph, the wounded doubled up in pain, the dying in agony? Why did the whole Greek world exult in the pictures of fighting in the Iliad? I fear we do not understand these things in enough of a Greek fashion . . . and we would shudder if we did . . . [12]

Nietzsche is vehement; some would say exultant. But much the same point can be made with proper ethnological drabness.

Many prehistoric bone fractures resulted from violence; many forearms appear to have been broken deflecting blows from clubs. Most parrying fractures are on the left forearm held up to block blows to the left side of the body from a right-hander. Parrying fractures were detected on 10 per cent of desert men and 19 per cent of east-coast women; for both groups they were the most common type of upper-limb fractures . . . Fractured skulls were twice to four times as common among women as men. The fractures are typically oval, thumb-sized depressions caused by blows with a blunt instrument. Most are on the left side of the head, suggesting frontal attack by a right-hander. Most head injuries are thus the result of interpersonal violence, probably inflicted by men on women. [13]

Do not think, by the way, that dwelling in this way on man’s ferocity leads necessarily in a Nietzschean direction. Listen to Hazlitt, speaking from the ironic heart of the English radical tradition:

Nature seems (the more we look into it) made up of antipathies: without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions of men. The white streak in our own fortunes is brightened (or just rendered visible) by making all around it as dark as possible; so the rainbow paints its form upon the cloud. Is it pride? Is it envy? Is it the force of contrast? Is it weakness or malice? But so it is, that there is a secret affinity, a hankering after evil in the human mind . . . Protestants and Papists do not now burn one another at the stake: but we subscribe to new editions of Fox’s Book of Martyrs [a contemporary equivalent might be The Gulag Archipelago]; and the secret of the success of theScotch Novels is much the same—they carry us back to the feuds, the heart-burnings, the havoc, the dismay, the wrongs and the revenge of a barbarous age and people—to the rooted prejudices and deadly animosities of sects and parties in politics and religion, and of contending chiefs and clans in war and intrigue. We feel the full force of the spirit of hatred with all of them in turn . . . The wild beast resumes its sway within us, we feel like hunting-animals, and as the hound starts in its sleep and rushes on the chase in fancy, the heart rouses itself in its native lair, and utters a wild cry of joy . . .[14]

This has more to say about Homs and Abbottabad, or Anders Breivik and Geert Wilders, than most things written since.

It is a logical error of the left, this is the point, to assume that a full recognition of the human propensity to violence—to blood-soaked conformity—closes off the idea of a radical reworking of politics. The question is: what root is it we need to get down to? And even a Hazlitt-type honesty about ‘a hankering after evil in the human mind’ can perfectly well coexist (as it did in Hazlitt’s post-Augustan generation) with a ‘By our own spirits are we deified’. Human capacities may well be infinite; they have certainly been hardly explored, hardly been given their chance of flowering; but the tragic sense starts from an acknowledgment that the infinity (the unplumbable) is for bad as much as good.
It likewise is wrong to assume that moderacy in politics, if we mean by this a politics of small steps, bleak wisdom, concrete proposals, disdain for grand promises, a sense of the hardness of even the least ‘improvement’, is not revolutionary—assuming this last word has any descriptive force left. It depends on what the small steps are aimed at changing. It depends on the picture of human possibility in the case. A politics actually directed, step by step, failure by failure, to preventing the tiger from charging out would be the most moderate and revolutionary there has ever been.

Nietzsche again is our (Janus-faced) guide, in a famous glimpse of the future in The Will to Power. As a view of what the politics of catastrophe might actually be like it remains unique. He begins with an overall diagnosis that will be familiar to anyone who has read him; but then, less typically, he moves on. The diagnosis first:

To put it briefly . . . What will never again be built any more, cannot be built any more, is—a society, in the old sense of that word; to build such, everything is lacking, above all the material. All of us[Nietzsche means us ‘moderns’] are no longer material for a society; this is a truth for which the time has come! [15]

We moderns no longer provide the stuff from which a society might be constructed; and in the sense that Enlightenment was premised on, perhaps we never did. The political unfolding of this reversal of the ‘social’ will be long and horrific, Nietzsche believes, and his vision of the century to come is characteristically venomous (which does not mean inaccurate): the passage just quoted devolves into a sneer at ‘good socialists’ and their dream of a free society built from wooden iron—or maybe, Nietzsche prophesies, from just iron on its own. After ‘socialism’ of this sort will come chaos, necessarily, but out of the chaos a new form of politics may still emerge. ‘A crisis that . . . purifies, that . . . pushes together related elements to perish of each other, that . . . assigns common tasks to men who have opposite ways of thinking . . . Of course, outside every existing social order’. And the upshot is as follows:

Who will prove to be the strongest in the course of this? The most moderate; those who do not requireany extreme articles of faith; those who not only concede but actually love a fair amount of contingency and nonsense; those who can think of man with a considerable reduction of his value without becoming small and weak themselves on that account . . . human beings who are sure of their power and who represent, with conscious pride, the strength that humanity has [actually] achieved.[16]

Of course I am not inviting assent to the detail (such as it is) of Nietzsche’s post-socialism. His thought on the subject is entangled with a series of naive, not to say nauseating, remarks on ‘rank order’ as the most precious fruit of the new movement. But as a sketch of what moderation might mean to revolutionaries, his note goes on resonating.

Utopianism, on the other hand—that invention of early modern civil servants—is what the landlords have time for. It is everything Carlo Levi’s peasants have learnt to distrust. Bruegel spells this out. His Cockaigne is above all a de-sublimation of the idea of Heaven—an un-Divine Comedy, which only fully makes sense in relation to all the other offers of otherworldliness (ordinary and fabulous, instituted and heretical) circulating as Christendom fell apart. What the painting most deeply makes fun of is the religious impulse, or one main form that impulse takes (all the more strongly once the hold of religion on the detail of life is lost): the wish for escape from mortal existence, the dream of immortality, the idea of Time to Come. ‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away’. What Bruegel says back to the Book of Revelation—and surely his voice was that of peasant culture itself, in one of its ineradicable modes—is that all visions of escape and perfectibility are haunted by the worldly realities they pretend to transfigure. Every Eden is the here and now intensified; immortality is mortality continuing; every vision of bliss is bodily and appetitive, heavy and ordinary and present-centred. The man emerging from the mountain of gruel in the background is the ‘modern’ personified. He has eaten his way through to the community of saints.

The young man on the ground at right, with the pens at his belt and the bible by his side, we might see as none other than St Thomas More, awake but comatose in his creation. And the lad gone to sleep on top of his flail? Who but Ned Ludd himself?

Utopias reassure modernity as to its infinite potential. But why? It should learn—be taught—to look failure in the face.

About modernity in general—about what it is that has made us moderns no longer stuff for the social—I doubt there is anything new to say. The topic, like the thing itself, is exhausted: not over (never over), just tired to death. All that needs restating here—and Baldwin Spencer’s great photos of the longest continuing human culture are the proper accompaniment—is that the arrival of societies oriented toward the future, as opposed to a past of origins, heroisms, established ways, is a fact of history not nature, happening in one place and time, with complex, contingent causes. Personal religion (that strange mutation) and double-entry book-keeping being two of them. And by modernity is meant very much more than a set of techniques or a pattern of residence and consumption: the word intends an ethos, a habitus, a way of being a human subject. I go back to the sketch I gave in a previous book:

‘Modernity’ means contingency. It points to a social order which has turned from the worship of ancestors and past authorities to the pursuit of a projected future—of goods, pleasures, freedoms, forms of control over nature, new worlds of information. The process was accompanied by a terrible emptying and sanitizing of the imagination. For without the anchorage of tradition, without the imagined and vivid intricacies of kinship, without the past living on (most often monstrously) in the detail of everyday life, meaning became a scarce social commodity—if by ‘meaning’ we have in mind agreed-on and instituted forms of value and understanding, orders implicit in things, stories and images in which a culture is able to crystallize its sense of the struggle with the realm of necessity and the realities of pain and death. The phrase Max Weber borrowed from Schiller, ‘the disenchantment of the world’—gloomy yet in my view exultant, with its promise of a disabused dwelling in the world as it is—still sums up this side of modernity best . . .

‘Secularization’ is a nice technical word for this blankness. It means specialization and abstraction, as part of the texture of ordinary doings; social life driven by a calculus of large-scale statistical chances, with everyone accepting or resenting a high level of risk; time and space turned into variables in that same calculus, both of them saturated by ‘information’ and played with endlessly, monotonously, on nets and screens; the de-skilling of everyday life (deference to experts and technicians in more and more of the microstructure of the self); available, invasive, haunting expertise; the chronic revision of everything in the light of ‘studies’. [17]

This does no more than block in the outlines: descriptively, there would be many things to add. But from the present point of view only two motifs need developing. First, that the essence of modernity, from the scripture-reading spice-merchant to the Harvard iPod banker sweating in the gym, is a new kind of isolate obedient ‘individual’ with technical support to match. The printed book, the spiritual exercise, coffee and Le Figaro, Time Out, Twitter, tobacco (or its renunciation), the heaven of infinite apps. Second, that all this apparatus is a kind or extension ofclockwork. Individuality is held together by a fiction of full existence to come. Time Out is always just round the corner. And while the deepest function of this new chronology is to do work on what used to be called ‘subject positions’—keeping the citizen-subject in a state of perpetual anticipation (and thus accepting the pittance of subjectivity actually on offer)—it is at the level of politics that the Great Look Forward is most a given.

What, in the trajectory of Enlightenment—from Hobbes to Nietzsche, say, or De Maistre to Kojève—were the distinctive strengths of the right? A disabused view of human potential—no doubt always on the verge of tipping over into a rehearsal of original sin. And (deriving from the first) an abstention from futurity. Nietzsche as usual is the possible exception here, but the interest of his occasional glimpses of a politics to come is, as I have said, precisely their ironic moderacy.

Does the right still possess these strengths? I think not. It dare not propose a view of human nature any longer (or if it does, it is merely Augustinian, betraying the legacy of Hume, Vico, even Freud and Heidegger); and slowly, inexorably, it too has given in to the great modern instruction not to be backward-looking. The right has vacated the places, or tonalities, that previously allowed it—to the left’s shame—to monopolize the real description and critique of modernity, and find language for the proximity of nothing. The left has no option but to try to take the empty seats.

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will? Not any more: because optimism is now a political tonality indissociable from the promises of consumption. ‘Future’ exists only in the stock-exchange plural. Hope is no longer given us for the sake of the hopeless: it has mutated into an endless political and economic Micawberism.

The tragic key makes many things possible and impossible. But perhaps what is central for the left is that tragedy does not expect something—something transfiguring—to turn up. The modern infantilization of politics goes along with, and perhaps depends on, a constant orientation of politics towards the future. Of course the orientation has become weak and formulaic, and the patter of programmers and gene-splicers more inane. Walter Benjamin would recoil in horror at the form his ‘weak messianism’ actually took once the strong messiahs of the twentieth century went away. The Twitter utopia joins hands with the Tea Party. But the direction of politics resists anything the reality of economics—even outright immiseration making a comeback—can throw at it. Politics, in the form we have it, is nothing without a modernity constantly in the offing, at last about to realize itself: it has no other telos, no other way to imagine things otherwise. The task of the left is to provide one.

‘Presence of mind as a political category’, says Benjamin,
comes magnificently to life in these words of Turgot: ‘Before we have learned to deal with things in a given state, they have already changed several times. Thus, we always find out too late about what has happened. And therefore it can be said that politics is obliged to foresee the present’. [18]

You may ask me, finally, what is the difference between the kind of anti-utopian politics I am advocating and ‘reformism’ pure and simple. The label does not scare me. The trouble with the great reformists within the Internationals was that they shared with the revolutionaries a belief in the essentially progressive, purgative, reconstructive destiny of the forces of production. They thought the economy had it in it to remake the phenotype. Therefore they thought ‘reform’ was a modest proposal, a pragmatic one. They were wrong. (The essential and noblest form of socialist reformism—Bernstein’s—came juddering to a halt in 1914, as the cycle of twentieth-century atavisms began. As a socialist project, it proved unrevivable.) Reform, it transpires, is a revolutionary demand. To move even the least distance out of the cycle of horror and failure—to leave the kolkhozniks and water-boarders just a little way behind—will entail a piece-by-piece, assumption-by-assumption dismantling of the politics we have.

To end by rephrasing the question posed earlier: the left in the capitalist heartland has still to confront the fact that the astonishing—statistically unprecedented, mind-boggling—great leap forward in all measures of raw social and economic inequality over the past forty years has led most polities, especially lately, to the right. The present form of the politics of ressentiment—the egalitarianism of our time—is the Tea Party. In what framework, then, could inequality and injustice be made again the object of a politics? This is a question that, seriously posed, brings on vertigo.

Maybe the beginning of an answer is to think of inequality and injustice, as Moses Wall seemed to, as epiphenomena above all of permanent warfare—of the permanent warfare state. And to frame a politics that says, unequivocally: ‘Peace will never happen’. It is not in the nature of (human) things that it should. But that recognition, for the left, only makes it the more essential—the more revolutionary a programme—that the focal point, the always recurring centre of politics, should be to contain the effects and extent of warfare, and to try (the deepest revolutionary demand) to prize aggressivity and territoriality apart from their nation-state form. Piece by piece; against the tide; interminably. In the same spirit as a left which might focus again on the problem of poverty—for of course there is no left without such a prime commitment—all the more fiercely for having Jesus’s words about its permanence ringing in their ears.

The question of reformism versus revolution, to take that up again, seems to me to have died the death as a genuine political question, as opposed to a rhetorical flourish. To adapt Randolph Bourne’s great dictum, extremisms—the extremisms we have—are now the health of the state.

The important fact in the core territories of capitalism at present (and this at least applies to Asia and Latin America just as much as Europe) is that no established political party or movement any longer even pretends to offer a programme of ‘reform’. Reforming capitalism is tacitly assumed to be impossible; what politicians agree on instead is revival, resuscitation. Re-regulating the banks, in other words—returning, if we are lucky, to the age of Nixon and Jean Monnet.

It surely goes without saying that a movement of opposition of the kind I have been advocating, the moment it began to register even limited successes, would call down the full crude fury of the state on its head. The boundaries between political organizing and armed resistance would dissolve—not of the left’s choosing, but as a simple matter of self-defence. Imagine if a movement really began to put the question of permanent war economy back on the table—in however limited a way, with however symbolic a set of victories. Be assured that the brutality of the ‘kettle’ would be generalized. The public-order helicopters would be on their way back from Bahrain. Jean Charles de Menezes would have many brothers. But the question that follows seems to me this: what are the circumstances in which the predictable to-and-fro of state repression and left response could begin, however tentatively, to de-legitimize the state’s preponderance of armed force? Not, for sure, when the state can show itself collecting severed and shattered body parts from the wreckage of Tube trains. Extremism, to repeat, is the state’s ticket to ride.

There will be no future, I am saying finally, without war, poverty, Malthusian panic, tyranny, cruelty, classes, dead time, and all the ills the flesh is heir to, because there will be no future; only a present in which the left (always embattled and marginalized, always—proudly—a thing of the past) struggles to assemble the ‘material for a society’ Nietzsche thought had vanished from the earth. And this is a recipe for politics, not quietism—a left that can look the world in the face.

[1] Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli [1945], London 1982, pp. 200, 178.
[2] Letter from December 1895, quoted in William Peterson, The Kelmscott Press: A History of William Morris’s Typographical Adventure, Oxford 1991, p. 252.
[3] My thanks to Iain Boal, who asked me for a first version of this essay for his conference, ‘The Luddites, without Condescension’ at Birkbeck, May 2011; and to audiences there and at subsequent readings of this paper. I draw occasionally on material used previously, and apologize to readers who come across things they already know.
[4] A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy [1904], New York 1968, pp. 28–9.
[5] Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 29.
[6] Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 32.
[7] The actual title is David Thomson, ed., The Era of Violence 1898–1945, Cambridge 1960. The overall editors of The New Cambridge Modern History, in which Thomson’s volume appeared, quickly ordered a revised edition called The Shifting Balance of World Forces.
[8] Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Cambridge, MA 1999, p. 474, Convolute N9a, 6.
[9] Isaac Penington, Divine Essays, London 1654, quoted in Christopher Hill, The Experience of Defeat, New York 1984, p. 120.
[10] Moses Wall, letter to Milton, 25 May 1659, quoted in David Masson, Life of Milton, London 1858–80, vol. 5, pp. 602–3; quoted in part and discussed in Hill, Experience of Defeat, pp. 53, 280–1, 327–8. Masson’s great Life is a good companion to Bradley.
[11] On a deeper level, Jean-Pierre Vernant’s argument for a connection between the rise of ‘de-individualized’ hoplite warfare, the generalizing of a culture of competitiveness (agon), the move towards a conception of social ‘equality’ or isonomia (for the citizen few), and the drive towards a numerical valuation of more and more aspects of social life, remains fundamental. See Jean-Pierre Vernant, The Origins of Greek Thought [1962], Ithaca 1982.
[12] Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Homer’s Contest’ (unpublished fragment from circa 1872), in Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. Carol Diethe, Cambridge 2007, pp. 174–5.
[13] Josephine Flood, The Original Australians: Story of the Aboriginal People, Crows Nest NSW 2007, pp. 122–3, following Stephen Webb, Palaeopathology of Aboriginal Australians: Health and Disease across a Hunter-Gatherer Continent, Cambridge 1995, pp. 188–216.
[14] William Hazlitt, ‘On the Pleasure of Hating’ (1823), in Hazlitt, Selected Writings, Harmondsworth 1970, pp. 397–8.
[15] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science [1882], trans. Walter Kaufmann, New York 1974, p. 304 (trans. slightly modified). I opt for the Gay Science‘s formulation of a thought repeated constantly, but never so economically, in The Will to Power.
[16] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will To Power [1901], trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, New York 1967, section 55, pp. 38–9 (trans. slightly modified).
[17] Clark, Farewell to an Idea, New Haven and London 1999, p. 7 (changed slightly).
[18] Benjamin, Arcades Project, pp. 477–8, Convolute N12a, 1.

As we all know, the USA is an empire in decline

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

keep your eyes on the prize

Frantz Fanon

you can kill the revolutionary, but you can't kill the revolution

The West in Flames

By William deBuys
Fire is only one cause of forest death. Heat alone can also do in a stand of trees.According to the Texas Forest Service, between 2% and 10% of all the trees in Texas, perhaps half-a-billion or so, died in last year’s heat wave, primarily from heat and desiccation. Whether you know it or not, those are staggering figures.
Insects, too, stand ready to play an ever-greater role in this onrushing disaster. Warm temperatures lengthen the growing season, and with extra weeks to reproduce, a population of bark beetles may spawn additional generations over the course of a hot summer, boosting the number of their kin that that make it to winter. Then, if the winter is warm, more larvae survive to spring, releasing ever-larger swarms to reproduce again. For as long as winters remain mild, summers long, and trees vulnerable, the beetles’ numbers will continue to grow, ultimately overwhelming the defenses of even healthy trees.
We now see this throughout the Rockies. A mountain pine beetle epidemic has decimated lodgepole pine stands from Colorado to Canada. About five million acres of Colorado’s best scenery has turned red with dead needles, a blow to tourism as well as the environment. The losses are far greater in British Columbia, where beetles have laid waste to more than 33 million forest acres, killing a volume of trees three times greater than Canada’s annual timber harvest.
Foresters there call the beetle irruption “the largest known insect infestation in North American history,” and they point to even more chilling possibilities. Until recently, the frigid climate of the Canadian Rockies prevented beetles from crossing the Continental Divide to the interior where they were, until recently, unknown. Unfortunately, warming temperatures have enabled the beetles to top the passes of the Peace River country and penetrate northern Alberta. Now a continent of jack pines lies before them, a boreal smorgasbord 3,000 miles long. If the beetles adapt effectively to their new hosts, the path is clear for them to chew their way eastward virtually to the Atlantic and to generate transformative ecological effects on a gigantic scale.
The mainstream media, prodded by recent drought declarations and other news, seem finally to be awakening to the severity of these prospects. Certainly, we should be grateful. Nevertheless, it seems a tad anticlimactic when Sam Champion, ABC News weather editor, says with this-just-in urgency to anchor Diane Sawyer, “If you want my opinion, Diane, now’s the time we start limiting manmade greenhouse gases.”
One might ask, “Why now, Sam?” Why not last year, or a decade ago, or several decades back? The news now overwhelming the West is, in truth, old news. We saw the changes coming. There should be no surprise that they have arrived.
It’s never too late to take action, but now, even if all greenhouse gas emissions were halted immediately, Earth’s climate would continue warming for at least another generation. Even if we surprise ourselves and do all the right things, the forest fires, the insect outbreaks, the heat-driven die-offs, and other sweeping transformations of the American West and the planet will continue.
In the meantime, forget about any sylvan dreams you might have had: this is no time to build your house in the trees.

Springsteen & Morello: "Ghost of Tom Joad"

Monday, July 23, 2012

Loading the Climate Dice


A couple of weeks ago the Northeast was in the grip of a severe heat wave. As I write this, however, it’s a fairly cool day in New Jersey, considering that it’s late July. Weather is like that; it fluctuates.

And this banal observation may be what dooms us to climate catastrophe, in two ways. On one side, the variability of temperatures from day to day and year to year makes it easy to miss, ignore or obscure the longer-term upward trend. On the other, even a fairly modest rise in average temperatures translates into a much higher frequency of extreme events — like the devastating drought now gripping America’s heartland — that do vast damage.

On the first point: Even with the best will in the world, it would be hard for most people to stay focused on the big picture in the face of short-run fluctuations. When the mercury is high and the crops are withering, everyone talks about it, and some make the connection to global warming. But let the days grow a bit cooler and the rains fall, and inevitably people’s attention turns to other matters.

Making things much worse, of course, is the role of players who don’t have the best will in the world. 

Climate change denial is a major industry, lavishly financed by Exxon, the Koch brothers and others with a financial stake in the continued burning of fossil fuels. And exploiting variability is one of the key tricks of that industry’s trade. Applications range from the Fox News perennial — “It’s cold outside! Al Gore was wrong!” — to the constant claims that we’re experiencing global cooling, not warming, because it’s not as hot right now as it was a few years back.

How should we think about the relationship between climate change and day-to-day experience? Almost a quarter of a century ago James Hansen, the NASA scientist who did more than anyone to put climate change on the agenda, suggested the analogy of loaded dice. Imagine, he and his associates suggested, representing the probabilities of a hot, average or cold summer by historical standards as a die with two faces painted red, two white and two blue. By the early 21st century, they predicted, it would be as if four of the faces were red, one white and one blue. Hot summers would become much more frequent, but there would still be cold summers now and then.

And so it has proved. As documented in a new paper by Dr. Hansen and others, cold summers by historical standards still happen, but rarely, while hot summers have in fact become roughly twice as prevalent. And 9 of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000.

But that’s not all: really extreme high temperatures, the kind of thing that used to happen very rarely in the past, have now become fairly common. Think of it as rolling two sixes, which happens less than 3 percent of the time with fair dice, but more often when the dice are loaded. And this rising incidence of extreme events, reflecting the same variability of weather that can obscure the reality of climate change, means that the costs of climate change aren’t a distant prospect, decades in the future. On the contrary, they’re already here, even though so far global temperatures are only about 1 degree Fahrenheit above their historical norms, a small fraction of their eventual rise if we don’t act.

The great Midwestern drought is a case in point. This drought has already sent corn prices to their highest level ever. If it continues, it could cause a global food crisis, because the U.S. heartland is still the world’s breadbasket. And yes, the drought is linked to climate change: such events have happened before, but they’re much more likely now than they used to be.

Now, maybe this drought will break in time to avoid the worst. But there will be more events like this. 

Joseph Romm, the influential climate blogger, has coined the term “Dust-Bowlification” for the prospect of extended periods of extreme drought in formerly productive agricultural areas. He has been arguing for some time that this phenomenon, with its disastrous effects on food security, is likely to be the leading edge of damage from climate change, taking place over the next few decades; the drowning of Florida by rising sea levels and all that will come later.

And here it comes.

Will the current drought finally lead to serious climate action? History isn’t encouraging. The deniers will surely keep on denying, especially because conceding at this point that the science they’ve trashed was right all along would be to admit their own culpability for the looming disaster. And the public is all too likely to lose interest again the next time the die comes up white or blue.

But let’s hope that this time is different. For large-scale damage from climate change is no longer a disaster waiting to happen. It’s happening now.

The creeping conquest of Palestine

Israel's illegal settlements in occupied territory--and the U.S. government's tolerance for them--are shining examples of the might-makes-right principle of colonialism.
July 19, 2012
ISRAEL'S PROJECT of colonial expansion has been thrust back onto the international stage by a report from a committee headed by a former Israeli Supreme Court justice recommending the legalization of Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank.
In asserting that Israel is not an occupying force in the West Bank, the Levy report--as it's become known, after the head of the three-member committee, Edmund Levy--flies in the face of decades of Israeli court rulings and a substantial body of international law and United Nations resolutions. The practical consequence of this claim is that Israel would not face any legal hurdle to annexing the settlements to Israel or constructing further settlements.
The Levy report's dismissal of decades of legal precedent caused a ripple of alarm among politicians in Israel and the U.S.--not because they oppose Israel's continuation of its colonial project, of course, but because of the embarrassing attention it draws to the denial of basic rights to some 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank.
"We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity, and we oppose any effort to legalize settlement outposts," said a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, days before a trip to Israel by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The U.S. government has been officially opposed to Israel's settlements throughout the so-called peace process that began nearly 20 years ago--but Washington continued to give billions in aid annually to Israel, even as the settlement enterprise expanded massively.
Within Israel, opposition to the Levy report is also widespread, but it has a more explicitly racist character. "Israeli settlements located in populated Arab areas, as a response to their attacks on us, might bring a threatening demographic shift, meaning, jeopardize the Jewish majority in Israel," said Israeli President Shimon Peres. "[W]ithout a Jewish majority, there is a doubt the Jewish state will remain Jewish."
So while the consensus within both the U.S. and Israeli political establishments is to oppose the Levy report, Israel's strategy remains the same one that the report seeks to justify: extend its colonial grip over more and more land, while denying basic rights to the indigenous inhabitants of that land.
This is the crux of Israel's apartheid system and a critical part of the motivation for the growing global campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Despite the enthusiasm of those who hoped his administration would herald a new era for U.S. policy in the Middle East, Barack Obama has shown the same dedication to support for Zionism as his predecessors. This makes the growth of the BDS movement all the more essential to achieving a free Palestine.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
THE PROBLEM with the Levy report among supporters of Israel is not the goal it sets--the further expansion of Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank--but the strategy for achieving it. By jettisoning established legal precedent, the report's recommendations enmesh Israel in a mess of inconsistencies.
For example, if Israel is not an occupying force, then all the land in the West Bank seized on the grounds of "military necessity" under the Fourth Geneva Convention was seized improperly. But according to David Kretzmer, an Israeli professor of international law and author of The Occupation of Justice: The Supreme Court of Israel and the Occupied Territories, this is only one aspect of the problem [2]:
The Levy report complains about inequality between Palestinians and Israelis. It cites Israel's Basic Law. But the real inequality on the West Bank is that the Israeli settlers have political rights in the state that controls their lives and the Palestinians do not. That is one of the grounds for the claim that the system there has elements of apartheid. If it accepts the Levy approach, the government will no longer be able to answer this claim by arguing that the territory is subject to a temporary regime of belligerent occupation. Either Israel's government will have to acknowledge that apartheid is living and kicking, or it will have to extend political rights to all Palestinian residents of the West Bank.
Extending political rights to all Palestinians is precisely the "demographic threat" that the Zionist establishment can't tolerate. In a debate with pro-Israel hack Jonathan Tobin on Democracy Now! [3], Palestinian author and activist Ali Abunimah illustrated this point:
[Shimon Peres'] statement calling Palestinian babies a so-called demographic threat really reveals the Jim Crow-like racism at the core of this Zionist ideology that views the mere existence of Palestinian babies in their own native land as a threat to Israel. How can Palestinians ever possibly recognize or give legitimacy to an entity which views their mere reproduction as human beings as a mortal threat?
It's time for Mr. Tobin and all the fans of this apartheid, racist, Jim Crow tyranny to make good on their claimed liberal and progressive values and oppose Israeli apartheid and accept the inevitable, which is that--just like in the Jim Crow South, just like in apartheid South Africa--one day there is going to be equal rights for everyone between the river and the sea.
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THE GROWTH of Israeli settlements has been incredible. In 1972, there were nearly 10,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. In 2012, there were more than 500,000. All this is despite the fact that the Fourth Geneva Convention explicitly forbids an occupying power to "transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies."
Throughout that entire period, Israel has been the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. The Obama administration continued this trend--something to remember the next time you hear a right winger denounce Obama as "anti-Israel."
In 2010, the Obama administration requested that Israel extend its 2010 moratorium on settlement construction for two months [4] in exchange for upgraded weapons systems, even more military and financial aid, and a pledge to veto any UN Security Council resolution on the Israel-Palestine conflict for a full year. Prime Minister Netanyahu rejected this offer.
In other words, the U.S. offered Israel a slew of financial and political favors to stop violating international law for two months--and Israel said no thanks. Obama then quietly dropped all of his demands.
So it should come as no surprise that Israel has become even more brazen in its drive to colonize the West Bank. A few of its most recent atrocities include the confiscation of water tanks that dozens of families depend upon for drinking and irrigation [5], the establishment of the first Israeli university in a settlement [6] and the continuing construction of the apartheid wall [7], despite the 2004 ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) [8] that it must be dismantled. According to the ICJ ruling:
The Court considers that the construction of the wall and its associate regime creates a 'fait accompli' on the ground that could well become permanent, in which case, and notwithstanding the formal characterization by Israel, it would be tantamount to de facto annexation...That construction, along with measures previously taken, thus severely impeded the exercise by the Palestinian people of its right to self-determination.
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THE ARAB uprisings that began more than a year ago upended longstanding dictators backed by the U.S. in Tunisia and Egypt. But during Hillary Clinton's recent trip to Egypt, she said she received a pledge from newly elected President Mohamed Morsi to continue the siege of Gaza [9]--imposed by Israel and the U.S., but made possible by the complicity of Egypt, which borders Gaza to the south. If the blockade continues, so will the humanitarian crisis that grips the densely populated strip of land.
Morsi's refusal to represent the overwhelming majority of opinion in Egypt to end the siege shows why progress in winning equal rights for Palestinians depends on the continued growth of the global BDS movement. The most recent success was the Presbyterian Church's passage this month of a resolution calling on all nations to "prohibit the import of products made by enterprises in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land."
The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) welcomed the development [10]:
The strongly worded resolution also calls upon all countries to ban the import of such products until Palestinians are able to realize their rights and achieve independence. This decision marks an important milestone in the march of mainline churches in the U.S. towards holding Israel accountable for its occupation, violations of international law and denial of the Palestinian right to self-determination.
A few weeks earlier, the campaign spearheaded by Jewish Voice for Peace [11] to encourage pension giant TIAA-CREF to divest funds from companies profiting from Israel's illegal occupation won a major victory when the company sold more than $72 million of Caterpillar shares from its social choice funds [12]. Caterpillar supplies the Israeli military with specially equipped bulldozers used in the demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank.
The Arab Spring has weakened a string of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East allied with the U.S.--making Washington even more reliant on Israel as its chief ally in an oil-rich and strategically critical part of the world. With the growing crisis in Syria and ongoing Israeli-U.S. bullying of Iran, the U.S. seems poised to continue its support for Israel whatever the cost.
But in seven years, the BDS movement has won an incredible number of victories [13], especially when compared to the accomplishments of two decades of the U.S.-brokered "peace process." The continuing growth of this movement is thus essential--not only for justice for Palestinians, but as part of the larger struggle to challenge U.S. domination of the Middle East.
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Published by the International Socialist Organization.
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