Must We Rebuild the Anthill?: A Letter to/for Japanese Comrades

Dear comrades,

We are writing to express our solidarity with you in a time when the pain from the deaths of friends, family and comrades is still raw and the task of shaping a new kind of life out of the immense wreckage of the present earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdowns might appear unimaginable. We want to think together with you about this moment and what it means for us in Japan and in the United States.

One thing is sure: the post-earthquake situation in Japan is more damaging to confidence in the capitalist mode of life than is any disaster in the so-called “under-developed” world or the previous exemplar of nuclear catastrophe, Chernobyl. “Natural disasters,” like famines in Ethiopia, can be blamed, however falsely, on the lack of capital, technology, and “know how,” i.e., on the lack of development, while the Chernobyl accident is often attributed to the unchecked technocratic megalomania bred in socialist societies. But neither underdevelopment nor socialism can be the cause of a disaster in 21st century Japan, which has the world’s third largest capitalist economy and the most technologically sophisticated infrastructure on the planet. The consequences of the earthquake, the ensuing tsunami and, most fatefully, the damaged nuclear reactors can hardly be blamed on the lack of capitalist development. Quite the contrary, they are evidence that more capitalism does not protect people against disasters, but intensifies the danger to a point that is inimical to human life while blocking any escape route.

We suspect that Japan’s very high place in the capitalist hierarchy of nations is why so little has been done internationally to bring help to the areas affected, compared to the international assistance rendered in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami or the Haitian earthquake of 2010. As a highly developed nation, Japan is considered as totally self-sufficient and not requiring any assistance. Yet the situation in Japan is far more dangerous for the Japanese population and the world in the long run than any previously witnessed. Neither Thailand, nor Sri Lanka nor Indonesia nor Haiti had nuclear power plants on their affected coasts, while a failing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant can destroy not only the Japanese economy, but turn vast regions of the country into a desert and transform its coast into a radioactive reef for centuries to come.

That is why we must be careful about the interpretation of these events. For the supporters of the system know its vulnerability at this moment and there is a tremendous ideological campaign afoot to make sure that these disasters do not become the occasion for revolutionary change. This campaign is part of an even wider effort to sap the pent-up energies for an alternative in the midst of the crisis (that have exploded so openly in the huge strike and demonstration waves in Tunisia and Egypt) and lead them down a path to despair and dissolution.

The first part of the campaign’s slogan is neoliberalism’s shibboleth — “there is no alternative to capitalism” (TINA)–but the second part is new — “even though capitalism is a perpetual disaster!” It is capitalism without apologies.

This is undoubtedly a “tough sell,” but it is now becoming conventional wisdom. It has been most clearly seen with the financial crisis. There is a general sense among the financial experts that it is impossible to prevent crises, because however clever government regulators are, even cleaver bankers would elude them and find ways to get around the regulations. As Paul Romer, a finance professor in Stamford University stated to the New York Times on March 11: “Every decade or so, any finite system of financial regulation will lead to systemic financial crisis.” In other words, all those who are on pensions or have a little savings or are taking out a mortgage should be prepared for periodic catastrophes… and there is nothing they can really do about it… or else!

Parallel to this “despair” in the financial sector, capitalism’s spokespeople have now decided to offer no solutions to any major human problem. They openly and shamelessly declare that economic, social, environmental catastrophes and crises are on the agenda, that risks are our inescapable lot, and we now must learn to use them. Thus, Tokyo’s troubles, by being so close to the stricken nuclear power plant, is Osaka’s gain, since it is further away! What we have seen to apply to the financial crisis now applies to the to BP Gulf coast oil spill, and are likely to see this cynical slogan being increasingly invoked as oil production is taking the industry into deeper waters and to creating tectonic dislocations with ensuing geological reactions that are bound to multiply. All capital’s voices have to offer is a resigned acceptance of disaster and human sacrifice. They tell us with confidence: “whether an alternative social mode of life exists or not in theory, you have no power to impose one in practice…so humanity is stuck with us.”

Under these circumstances, resistance and opposition is the most minimal sign of natural wisdom. Already the living conditions of Japanese people in the areas affected are apocalyptic. For weeks thousands, after having facing the trauma of seeing their houses and cities destroyed and the people they have loved swept into the sea, have been forced to live in the most shameful conditions, shivering in the cold with no medical help, with little coming from the so-called international community to provide assistance, except for few select engineering teams interested in saving the face of the nuclear companies. The experts tell us to be resigned and they back up the profit of the US companies (like GE which was responsible for the containment vessels in the Fukushima plants) by assuring us that nuclear power is the best alternative to global warming and causes fewer cancers than coal.

And they ridicule our presumably exaggerated fears… after all, they say, we don’t stop driving, even though accidents exist.

In the midst of this cynicism we are often told, even more cynically, that the Japanese people are “resilient” and “stoic” (which simply means that they will not revolt against the inhuman condition capital and the state has thrust them). They are presumably like the people W. Chipman, an official of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), described thirty years ago who when asked if “American institutions” would survive an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union replied, “I think they would eventually, yeah. As I say, the ants eventually build another anthill.” Mr. Chipman’s counter-revolutionary confidence has been generalized thirty years later in a dystopian moment at the end of history. He assumed that capital has become so identified with social life that we cannot prise apart its future from ours even when it has shown itself to be totally destructive to that life.

Must we rebuild the anthill? That is our historical, even biological, test. It is not only a test for you, alone, but for us in the United States as well. For the same dismal deal is being presented to us both.

In solidarity,

Silvia and George

George Caffentzis