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Review of Catastrophism
The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth
Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth
By Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen, and James Davis
PM Press, 2012, 192 pp.
The politics and rhetoric of doomsday shadows the left, right, and environmental movements in the Global North. What this trend means is the focus of a new book titled Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth. Catastrophism is the view that society is on the path to collapsing—ecologically, economically, and morally. For some catastrophists, a collapse would spur a rebirth and cleansing.
The book’s authors agree that capitalism does generate catastrophes. The most visible one is climate change; others are less easy to see, with species die-off a dire case in point.
Meanwhile, the political and rhetorical use of fear unites leftists, rightists, and environmentalists. This may seem strange. Yet, strangeness apart, the rub is that for the right-wing, secular, and sacred, fear works to galvanize support for ruling-class power. By contrast, fearful politics and rhetoric tend to paralyze the left and environmental movements, a critique at the heart of Catastrophism.
Doug Henwood, author and financial journalist, in the foreword sets the anti-catastrophe table for the four chapters to follow. To this end, he maintains that dystopian narratives weaken progressives and are rooted in mistaken views of reforming and overturning the system.
Eddie Yuen explores the uses of catastrophe in the environmental movement. He surveys how, in part, catastrophes are normalized, contextualized, attributed, and prophesized—from former Vice President Al Gore to Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus. Yuen suggests that presenting the public with fearful facts about the climate crisis, for instance, is insufficient to encourage them to engage in social solidarity. For him, self-organized movements are the key node of resistance to environmental devastation, everyday people coming together to combat their isolation in the face of corporate capitalism’s relentless attacks against them and the planet.
Sasha Lilley critically unpacks left-wing views of collapse as a means to awaken and cleanse society. Why? Catastrophists on the left, she argues convincingly, are mired in “a deep-seated pessimism about mass collective action and radical social transformation.”
Against the backdrop of such defeatism over recent decades, Lilley defines one flavor of left catastrophism as that of determinism: the capitalist system’s limits alone will herald progressive social change. She evaluates the evidence of this from currents in anarchism and Marxism, past and present. For Lilley, some Marxists misunderstand Marx’s view of history, seeing it as a mechanical unfolding of social change. Yet, he placed at the center of this process the actions of living human beings collectively cooperating to end their oppression, with the overthrow of apartheid in
For Lilley, there is also a voluntarism viewpoint of left catastrophists: grim material conditions alone (“the worse the better”) will spur radical possibilities. She takes up one variant of this outlook in part with an analysis of far-left groupings such as the Weather Underground during the 1960s.
James Davis explains how the
David McNally wraps up the book with a brilliant chapter on the history and imagery of monsters under capitalism, especially zombies—a cultural and historical critique that is quite readable. We journey from the England of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein to
Underpinning the book is the authors’ sense of urgency. Their view is that an informed understanding of the actual character of the capitalist system can empower dissidents mobilizing together to build an anti-system movement.
Catastrophism launches a vital conversation for our crisis-laden era. In a time of real dangers and unreal cures, this is a book to read and savor.
Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljustice center.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.