Insecure Times

Under Review:

Marc Abélès, The Politics of Survival (Duke University Press, 2010)
Kolya Abramsky, Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution: Social Struggles in the Transition to a Post-Petrol World(AK Press, 2010)
Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times (Verso, 2010)


Writing about Hollywood disaster movies, Fredric Jameson once quipped that our culture finds it easier to imagine the end of life on Earth than to conceive of a transformation of the capitalist social relations that are pushing us inexorably towards catastrophe. Jameson’s quip unfortunately grows more prescient by the day. Liberal democratic political systems the world over seem utterly incapable of coping with the critical economic, political, and ecological challenges that face contemporary civilization. Indeed, the sole significant change evident in the political sphere these days is the dismantling of the very forms of regulation and infrastructure that made decades of post-1945 stability and prosperity possible. The only exit from the current organic crisis of capital, politics, and ecology seems, in other words, to be an intensification of precisely the destabilizing conditions that provoked that crisis in the first place. As a result, we are living through a radical foreclosure of the future. Little wonder, then, that we’re being subjected to a bumper crop of disaster movies.

French anthropologist Marc Abélès’s book The Politics of Survival (Duke University Press, 2010) begins from precisely this pessimistic premise.  The neoliberal era has, Abélès argues, displaced power increasingly from the political to the economic sphere, fostering forms of risk and instability that manifest themselves most sharply today in fears over urban insecurity and ecological deterioration.  As uncertainty has become our common fate, we have entered a radically different epoch from the modern, when politics – despite evidence to the contrary such as the Holocaust and the atom bomb – concerned itself enduringly with the question of utopian futures and progress.  Today, Abélès concludes, we are stuck in a world without hope and futurity.  As a consequence, the question of survival has become paramount.  As Abélès puts it, “my ambition in this book is to define the political space of survival and analyze the specific modes of governmentality that are invented to put these politics into practice.”

Abélès’s book contains some fascinating discussions to support these arguments, including an intriguing consideration of the temporality of the present based on Reinhardt Koselleck’s foundational work on the temporal orientation of modernity.  Abélès also draws on anthropology of the state to argue for the historical specificity of the absorption of politics by the modern nation-state.  This in turn leads him to a critique of Foucault’s notion of biopower.  Abélès’s critique is grounded in the argument that Foucault’s influential analysis focused on the “policing” power of the modern nation-state, a power that is now being superannuated as significant sections of populations are cut adrift, to become what Zygmunt Bauman terms “human waste” or surplus humanity.

The limits of Abélès’s book lie less, then, in his anatomy of how things have changed than in his discussion of the politics of survival today.  In these sections of his book, Abélès focuses in particular on the contemporary role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in keeping issues of environmental sustainability and global social equity in the public eye despite the diminution of state power.  Abélès seems to be familiar with the critique of NGOs articulated by writers such as James Petras, who see the organizations as acting to dampen collective militancy by creaming off the most articulate leaders and offering them lucrative jobs in groups that never challenge the status quo that creates the need for NGOs in the first place.  NGOs, in other words, like most other organisms, have an interest in perpetuating themselves.  While this critique is a little overstated, nonetheless the realm of NGOs seems a rather pallid contender given the magnitude of the crises we currently confront.

Another weakness of Abélès’s book is its Eurocentrism.  His discussions of modernity, temporality, and politics are all articulated from a perspective that is not only apparently unfamiliar with the hybrid modernities of many postcolonial societies, but which fails to question the uneven development of modernity within the “advanced” capitalist nations themselves.  For the vast majority of people alive today, in fact, the shift towards instability and the politics of survival that Abélès traces is nothing new.  What is new today is that this instability is being ramped up as a result of the forms of predatory economic rent seeking and the unsustainable industrially generated carbon emissions engaged in by the developed world (as well as, it has to be said, an increasingly large segment of the developing world).  The point here is that the politics of survival, like those of development, are likely to be highly uneven. Abélès makes no effort to examine the impact of ecological crises in places such as Bolivia and Pakistan, not to mention New Orleans, where historical inequality and imperialism are intensifying the “natural” disasters produced by anthropogenic climate change.

The title of Slavoj Zizek’s latest book, Living in the End Times (Verso Press, 2010), implies a focus on precisely such severe conditions.  As he has done in previous works, Zizek weaves together psychoanalytic and historical materialist theories with great panache, turning, in this work, to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s theory of the five stages of grief through which terminally ill people progress (denial; anger; bargaining; depression; acceptance) in order to understand how humanity is dealing with the terminal crisis of the liberal capitalist political-economic order.  Zizek is extremely clear about what ails us today: the progress of capitalism, he argues, which requires a consumerist ethos, is undermining the very conditions that make capitalism possible.  This contradiction is particularly clear in the recent subprime mortgage-fueled economic crisis, in which arcane financial instruments designed to minimize risk became central ingredients in a Ponzi scheme whose collapse endangered the now-globalized financial nervous system of capitalism.

At the outset of the book, Zizek explains that the book will be organized around Kubler-Ross’s five stages: 1) an analysis of the predominant modes of contemporary obfuscation which keep us in denial of present conditions, from Hollywood blockbusters to false (displaced) apocalypticism; 2) discussion of violent protests against the global system, the rise of religious fundamentalism, and other symptoms of anger; 3) a critique of political economy, with a plea for renewal of this central ingredient of Marxist theory; 4) a consideration of the impact of the forthcoming collapse as evidenced in the rise of new forms of subjective pathology; 5) an exploration of signs of an emerging emancipatory subjectivity, which focuses on the seeds of a future communist culture in diverse forms, including in literary and other utopias.  This all sounds very logical, but, as one reads Living in the End Times, one sometimes feels as if one is in the presence of a wild-eyed, ranting prophet rather than the cool-headed analyst that the foregoing organizational schema promises.  In the book’s first chapter, for example, Zizek engages in a freewheeling discussion of the ancient Hindu text The Laws of Manu, the Book of Job, as well as contemporary corporate mega-philanthropists like Bill Gates.  The point here is to explain how denial and disavowal work, but the examples discussed are, if impressively erudite, nonetheless so breathtakingly transhistorical that one is left wondering what makes this particular moment any different from any other one since the beginning of the Neolithic age.

This, of course, is Zizek’s style.  It’s often entertaining, always dazzling, and, at times, insightful about the crisis of the present.  All too often, however, I found myself bridling at the level of generality at which the argument unfolds.  Is it really true, for instance, that human beings in general (Eurocentrism rears its head again) are engaged in disavowal of climate change, just to take one of the serried crises we confront?  The problem with this argument is that it ignores the various specific ways in which our environmental and political situation has been obscured.  In order to understand this situation adequately, we’d need an analysis of the various corporate-funded fake science front organizations and the entire ecology of Right-wing mass media.  The danger is that, in treating the issue of denial both ahistorically and in a predominantly psychoanalytic vein, Zizek makes people into shills who are seamlessly interpolated by hegemonic ideology.  This of course ignores several decades of cultural studies work that documents the great variety of ways that people decode dominant media messages, not to mention the specificity of the current media landscape.

Even if it were true, however, that people in general are going through the different stages of grief identified by Zizek, this does not necessarily mean that much will change once this grief is identified.  Green consumerism is now a huge and growing segment of the market in overdeveloped nations, where recycling and other palliative measures are nearly universal.  But at long as our electricity is generated from coal-fired power plants and the structure of our cities forces us to make long commutes, it is unlikely that catastrophe will be averted.  The problem lies in the infrastructure of modern civilization.  The question that consequently arises is how radical democratic social movements can foster change in these infrastructures of contemporary capitalist civilization.  Neither Abélès nor Zizek attempts to answer this question in any detail.  Perhaps they wish to avoid the search for some privileged agent of historical change.  Of course there are awful hierarchical traditions in Marxism that we would do well to shy away from today. But this should not prevent us from looking for strategic sites, sectors, and struggles where we can apply our energies in order to provoke meaningful change.

This is where Kolya Abramsky’s Sparking a World-Wide Energy Revolution (AK Press, 2010) is so inspiring.  Unlike Abélès and Zizek, Abramsky and his colleagues set out to identify the fulcrum points at which revolutionary transformation might be possible today.  Key in this regard, as the title of the collection suggests, is the energy sector.  Beginning with the assumption that energy will be an increasing flashpoint for social struggle as reserves of fossil fuels peak and competition for renewable energy heats up, Abramsky explores incipient political alliances around struggles over power generation. Unlike many analysts who assume that renewable energy will be a utopian mode of small-scale, decentralized, egalitarian power generation, Abramsky argues that renewable power resources tend to be located in geographical sites to which indigenous and other oppressed peoples have been relocated across the centuries.  The growth of renewable power is therefore likely to lead to a fresh round of accumulation by dispossession.  Nonetheless, Abramsky discerns possibilities for alliances between rural peoples, urban dwellers, and those working within the traditional fossil fuel sectors (the plurality of whom are located in the global South, in all three cases).  Alliances between these groups, leading in the best possible scenario to popular control of the means of power generation, could produce dramatic political gains and a reversal of neoliberal hegemony.  It’s to this battle for the emerging global energy commons – as well as cognate struggles in areas such as the agricultural commons – that we should look for a viable and meaningful politics of survival, rather than to the NGOs or X-Men comic books discussed by Abélès and Zizek.  I do not mean to suggest that liberal institutions and mass culture are entirely irrelevant to the struggle at hand, but simply that, given the planet-killing crises we confront, we need to think far more strategically about where our political energies should be applied. It is from such sites, moreover, that particularly fertile combinations of political struggle and popular culture are likely to emerge.

Ashley Dawson

Ashley Dawson, a professor of English at the Graduate Center/CUNY and the College of Staten Island, is a scholar of postcolonial studies and a climate justice activist. He is the author of two recent books on topics relating to the environmental issues, Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017) and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R, 2016), as well as many other books on topics relating to migration, global justice, and cultural struggles. He is currently completing a book on energy democracy and just transition entitled The Energy Common.