Monday, January 15, 2018

(Finished) Book Review: "Radical Transformation"

 Kevin MacKay is a friend of mine, so I was very happy when his book Radical Transformations: Oligarchy, Collapse, and the Crisis of Civilization was published by "Between the Lines" press. Also, as a favour to Kevin, I've decided to post a review of the book here at the blog for my [officially] eleven "followers" and the half-dozen or so casual readers who might pop-in every month or so if there's nothing else going on in the increasingly moribund Canadian blog-o-sphere.

The quick and dirty summary is that humanity (and, obviously, civilization) is well and truly fucked. And we're going to take a lot of life-forms down with us. Also, my own pessimistic take on MacKay's efforts to chart our way out of the crisis of collapse, is that it is far too little, and I don't know if "late" does justice to the total irrelevance and disarray of the forces he pins his slim hopes on.

The villain of MacKay's book is "Oligarchy." Which is to say; any excessive agglomeration of power by any one group of people. It is oligarchy that renders the strategy of enlightening society to the dangers and counseling change (a-la David Suzuki, Jared Diamond and Thomas Homer-Dixon) as insufficient. It doesn't matter if 80% of the population is aware of the problem and fired-up to do something about it. If the political system is dominated by an oligarchy that bases its power on the status-quo, then the status-quo will prevail. What is needed, if humanity is to survive, is "Radical Transformation."

Radical Transformation is divided into two parts with Part One having chapters on "Collapse," "Dissociation," "Complexity," "Stratification," "Overshoot," and "Oligarchy." Part Two has two chapters: "The Death System," and "Toward a System of Life." There is also an Introduction that nicely foreshadows everything you're going to read in the book.

"Collapse" looks at how to define what "civilization" means (so as to better grasp what is all going to go to shit). Basically, a "system of civilization" is an interconnected web of relationships (ecological/economic/political/socio-cultural).

"Dissociation" and "Complexity" talk about how we are so disconnected from the impacts of our actions as individuals, and as civilizations, to be able to easily make sense of the extent of the coming crises. We don't see the endless fields of drugged-up, sick animals being fed a straight diet of cheap corn, dragged to the killing-floors of the abattoirs (when they're too weak to stumble there on their own two feet [or four hooves really]) to be dispatched and dismembered by overworked, undocumented immigrants, and the chunks placed on styrofoam trays and shrink-wrapped in plastic. We don't see how the farmland used to fatten distressed animals takes food away from other humans. We don't see the clouds of methane produced by these factory farms. We're too distanced by space and time to empathize with either the suffering beasts or the hungry fellow humans. We don't understand the networks of power that formed and perpetuate this system or the other deadly systems that most of us accept as "just the way things are."

"Stratification" deals with the creation of social inequality and its intensification under late-capitalism. These present levels of inequality already threaten the viability of our civilization. How can a vast population of paupers provide a real economy for the tens of trillions already being hoarded by the super-rich to "invest" in? One day, when the latest incarnation of the Ponzi-scheme that is the world's financial markets collapses, there won't be enough of the "little people's" tax dollars to bail them out. And there won't be a social system with any reserves to plunder via austerity policies to finance the deficit-spending needed to bail them out.

"Overshoot" is, I think, one of the more depressing sections of a depressing book. We're running out of the fossil fuels that power our road to nowhere. Which is sort of a good thing because on our journey we're destroying the ecological system via global warming, mass-extinctions and ever more pervasive toxification.

"Oligarchy" describes that term and, also, how the present system of oligarchy is committed to this destructive system. They can't imagine a different world. They see no need (inside their bubbles of super-privilege) to even see the need for a different world. And they have a vice-like grip on the decision-making process. (This includes their grip on the media system that serves to portray everything as reasonable and manageable.)

In Part Two's "The Death System" MacKay explains how much of the time, oligarchs arose from out of more egalitarian social systems due to psycopathology. To whit; people obsessed with getting power tend to get it. While people not obsessed with getting power (and thereby being able to rob and abuse others) tend not to even try and thereby end up living under the authority of those who do. It isn't just the capitalists in our present system. Capitalism is the name of the oligarchic system that we are presently suffering under, but the desire to dominate others can come in many forms and from many different sources. We have to be on our guard against the desires of psychopaths no matter what form of civilization we strive to create.

It is in "Toward a System of Life" that I intend to focus this review. MacKay is to be commended for spending about 15% of his book discussing the subject of solutions to the crises he identifies, rather than the typical 5% that most left-wing books such as this tend to give to the topic. As I prepare to write this section though, I recall that reading it at the time there was still an inordinate amount of negativity considering what the task at hand was. Regardless; here we go ...

The chapter starts off with the quote from Frederick Douglas "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." Then MacKay reminds us of the story that opened his book: That of the local activists and environmentalists who were defeated when they tried to preserve Hamilton Ontario's Red Hill Valley, a large green space in the city's east-end that had been set aside specifically as a park and wilderness preserve. Because of erosion caused by the Red Hill Creek, the valley provided a gradient slope that local real-estate developers and their political cat's-paws believed was designed by God Himself to build an expressway that could link new housing built on Hamilton's "Mountain" (324 meters) with the QEW highway. The activists had the facts and the law and (for a long time) public opinion, on their side, but the developers had the money, the media sided with the developers and the "forces of order" and corrupt politicians abused process for decades until finally, despite last-minute occupations of the construction site (met with massive police and private security force thuggery) the bad guys won.

Basically, says MacKay, this incident, and countless others, give the lie to the claims of oligarchs that they have been a force for progress in human societies. They are, instead, corrupt, selfish, and destructive. Left unchallenged, oligarchs will exploit and plunder everything before them, for their own selfish and insane levels of gratification.

Mackay says "For all of these reasons, I identify oligarchy as the final and ultimate cause of civilization's crisis."

Oligarchs are not the force of stability preserving us from a Hobbesian "War of All Against All." These psychopathic individuals are themselves the root-cause of crisis and devastation. Our problems are not technical in nature, they are caused by the distortion of human creativity and community by rapacious oligarchs.

... I meant to write this over the Christmas holiday, but I got sick. So I went to finish it on my two days off but I got even more sick. So I'm posting  it now and will finish it when I can.

Well, I'm back. On with the show ...

Two other things MacKay mentions are the dangers of "totalizing categories" such as "the people" or "the working class." Yes, there is such a thing as "the people" or "the ninety percent" or "the working class." But, obviously, the people AREN'T united. People are divided by gender, by "race" and by religion and by any number of factors.  Some of these other identities can make their memberships even more natural allies for those pursuing social justice, but not if we ignore them and the issues that affect them. Revolutionaries mustn't run roughshod over the lived experiences of others and attempt to force them into our own narratives.

The other issue is "Insurrection." MacKay says that revolutionaries who dream of a violent toppling of the system are dreaming in technicolour. In North America, Europe and Japan (and Australasia) there are too many people invested in the present system to imagine destroying it. This is true. Furthermore, it is my belief that while revolutions are possible in the "less developed countries" the sad reality is that our elites and our state-systems (of violence) can destroy whatever revolutionaries in those countries attempt to create. Therefore, however much contempt more thorough-going radicals have for the coddled, privileged, selfish nature of the masses in the core countries, we are nonetheless going to have to get them onside for the radical transformations that are needed. And this means abandoning insurrectionism.

On the way towards the topic of "non-reformist reform" that MacKay will posit as an alternative to insurrection, he wastes an inordinate amount of time debating with the positions of a group of intellectual non-entities called the "Deep Green Resistance." The DGR, building upon the plausible idea that humanity (let alone present-day modern civilization) is unsustainable, advocate destroying it. Obviously, the majority of people will not agree to this and will reject it. The DGR therefore advocate an underground movement of saboteurs who will, presumably, destroy energy, water, transportation and food networks. For some reason or other an above-ground movement of supporters will arise who will "support" this destruction. (Why this is at all worth mentioning isn't stated in MacKay's summary of their ideas.)

Here's the thing DGR: If that's what you want to do, go nuts. However, they're NOT doing that. Instead they're writing books saying that other people [presumably] should do this. (As well as splitting-up over disagreements about transgendered policies, as if that's important in the face of the destruction of the biosphere.) Which kind of undercuts their legitimacy. Because while they're waiting for the campaign of sabotage to start, in the meantime they're consuming resources and belching out greenhouse gases and just contributing to the problem.

If they really want to live up to their stirringly radical revolutionary writings, the best thing they could do would be to kill themselves, have their bodies encased in honey, or amber, or some other sealant, and then have them thrown down an abandoned mineshaft and covered up with gravel, in order to contain the further amounts of greenhouse gases and toxins that would ordinarily be emitted.

Another thinker along these lines is the Anarcho-Primitivist, John Zerzan who says that technological society was a mistake and that we should revert back to hunter-gatherer technology. If you look for a picture of Mr. Zerzan you will probably see a photo of him wearing spectacles. I guess he foraged those spectacles from a wild Spectacle Bush growing in the forest outside his cave or lean-to.  Either that or he's a hypocrite who makes use of the products of technological society to divert himself from what he (and the DGR) say is the primary necessity for moral human beings today.

MacKay doesn't agree with the DGR. Though he does make an important point while debating with them. The bizarre notion of above-ground supporters of the saboteurs (I can only see these supporters as being figures of universal hatred and government repression should they ever speak out as people's power and other basic necessities get cut-off) gets things backwards. Violent radicals don't appear and generate a mass of non-violent supporters. MacKay says that what tends to happen is that a critical mass of people find a situation intolerable, coalesce to for a peaceful resistance/protest/reform movement, and then, when the powers-that-be reveal themselves as unwilling to concede to the barest of concessions, this radicalizes many among the membership. When the forces of the state resort to violent suppression of the movement, even more people become radicalized and some eventually decide that only force can have any impact.

The last thing that should be said about the DGR is that while they might very well be right about our unavoidable collapse, this will come with or without the campaign of revolutionary sabotage that these writers say that somebody (not them) should undertake. So why even bother writing fantasies of a movement of left-green revolutionaries? Just let it happen and make your own carbon footprint as small as possible while you're waiting for that to happen.

What we should be pursuing, says MacKay, is "non-reformist reforms." Here's a quote he uses from Michael Albert's The Trajectory of Change:

How do we win new gains along the road? We raise the social cost of not granting the gains we seek until we reach the point where those who don't want to give in to our demands have no choice but to do so. Change is a combination of a sequence of reforms or limited victories that string together into a pattern in which we continually change the contours of the world we live in, making ourselves stronger and making those who oppose us weaker until, ultimately, we win basic alterations.

While insurrectionists say that reforms that can be given will just strengthen the system and fool people into putting off genuine change, MacKay argues that some reforms will do more to strengthen the majority and create space for the development of centers of resistance.

This is something that I wholeheartedly believe in. My only difficulty thus far is that at present I see no indication of any forces for radical transformation capable of raising the social cost for non-compliance for the elites.

In the long run, MacKay says, oligarchy has engaged in a see-saw exchange with the Life System. Sometimes they crush the movement. Sometimes they are forced to concede reforms. Over the centuries, the Life System has won many victories against slavery, gender oppression, caste systems, etc., and institutions such as public education, public health care and representative democracy, have been won.

MacKay uses the examples of stephen harper in Canada and Donald Trump in the USA as signs of the continued resilience of the Death System but points to the Occupy Movement, Idle No More, the Quebec Student Movement, and the energy behind the Bernie Sanders campaign as signs of the continued push-back of the Life System. Personally, being a pessimist, I only see Occupy as an ineffectual blip that brought a couple of new terms ("the 1%") but which most people have forgotten. Idle No More I have spoken of before. It had no impact on stephen harper's blatantly racist policies and, perhaps, it has compelled the Trudeau Liberals to make more nice noises than they would have, but they did not raise the social cost of internal colonialism enough to reverse things. (That is on us. Idle No More is peaceful and they ought to be. They're oppressed and brutalized by the police enough as it is. It is up to those of us in the settler society who claim to be their allies to put OUR bodies on the line to raise the social cost for the system. What did the Quebec Student Movement accomplish? The Bernie Sanders movement is (I hope) bigger than the sell-out Sanders. It's existence is evidence of something big, but it needs to be developed apart from the Pied Piper it's named after.

MacKay uses the term "movement of movements" (borrowed from elsewhere) to talk about the way forward for the Life System. He uses the example of the anti-pipeline indigenous Water Protectors at Standing Rock. Again, being a pessimist, I think the Left should refrain from using examples wherein an oppressed group of people, in return for getting attacked by dogs, pepper-sprayed, kettled, arrested, brutalized, abused, traumatized; etc., etc., manage to stop (often only temporarily) some new Death System assault on their basic living conditions. Nothing I say detracts from their courage or their nobility. But insofar as they are only fighting tooth and nail to stop some NEW outrage, they are, by definition (one would think) NOT fighting to win a VICTORY.

On pages 201-04 MacKay provides a wish-list of reforms that constitutes the basics for the world most social justice activists would like to see happen. He is to be commended for this. It is concise and comprehensive. The question remains: How to achieve this?

The Left has to define their terms. How do we "raise the social costs" of not conceding our demands? What do we mean by "pressure" when we say we'll "keep the pressure on" elites who are defying us? We have to stop labeling as "victories" something as simple as a mere movement against something. Just because we "organize" to defend against something, it doesn't mean that we've won. We have to learn that stirring rhetoric alone does not win a victory. Is Donald Trump conceding anything to the people against the Banksters? Or is the Republican Party not just doubling down on their service to the ultra-rich; their harassment of people of colour; their support for brutal, racist policing? Has the Democratic Party learned that it needs its base if it is to win victories? Or are they not focusing on imaginary Russian interference in the last election; maintaining their allegiance to the surveillance state and endless war; continued service to silicon valley robber barons?

One valuable thing that MacKay mentions is the power of the media system to co-opt the debate and divert discussion to safer (for them) topics. Is "Black Lives Matter" anti-cop? To be debating such a ridiculous question is testimony to the power of the corporate media to divert and diffuse. And I know from personal experience that when if comes to issues of importance to the Left, that you will generally find that 10% of any given population knows the issues and agrees with us. 20% have heard of the issue and have bought into the insane right-wing version of things. And 70% have no clue whatsoever.

One thing that I thought at the time I first read MacKay's book was that when we advocate for something it MUST be something that directly impacts the lives of the people we want onside. It does so positively. And it must be simple to understand. Rallying for a Tobin Tax or against Islamophobia is good. But the vast majority simply don't know and don't care. Find out how to directly help people. Including the majority in the industrialized world who leftist activists tend to dismiss as fat, coddled "sheeple." Because dismissing 60% of the population as overstuffed greed dumb-fucks is not going to help us in our battle against the Death System. So, instead, we should advocate for something like, oh, I don't know "WORKERS AS CITIZENS" which gives them human and political rights within their workplaces, to exercise HOWEVER THEY SEE FIT. Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy.

That's my review basically. I'm a much more pessimistic person these days since watching so many "progressive" brains turn to shit as they sang the praises of Wall-Street War-Criminal Hillary Clinton and who are now "mobilizing" to bring on nuclear Armageddon over the ridiculous "Russia-gate." I read MacKay's book in such a state and he writes about the multiple crises our shit-head species is facing and I think that we are well and truly fucked. But maybe you're not as sick as I am. Maybe you'll see the last chapter and take hope. Regardless; it's an important work and I'm glad to do what I can to spread the word about it.

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