Digital Alienation 5

•October 20, 2014 • 2 Comments

mobile Weihnachten

[Last byte of this essay. Phew, relief for all concerned...]

Generalising Absence

Digitalisation is the daily experience of capitalism’s core alienation: the absence of strong, autonomous presence in people and relationships, and the often palpable presence of absence in people and relationships. A strong self has a reduced need for mindless consumption and is thus surplus to requirements in advanced capitalism. Post-modern capitalism ideally needs infantile adults and pseudo-adult infants. Parents themselves may be spending more time checking and updating their ‘social’ media than talking with their children, affecting the latters’ emotional development. People are increasingly absent on their at-call devices even while seemingly present, and thus their remnant presence – a matter of being grounded in the here-and-now of their body and senses ‒ is also diminishing like the last vestiges of nature. The traditional survival mode of alienated labour, namely dissociating and inwardly ‘absenting’ oneself from one’s activity in order to cope with the stress and monotony, has now become generalised and facilitated by the 24/7 pseudo-personalisation of digital media.

Esse est percipi: the Lonely FOMO Crowd

Digitalisation increasingly entails the reduction of face-to-face conversation and conviviality, replaced with the crowded isolation and dispersed loneliness of ‘social media’, relationship simulations and the ‘crowd cloud’. We may now encounter gatherings of friends, even whole families at the dinner table, where all are at some point no longer looking at each other and communicating but scanning and flicking their little personal screens checking their Facebook and texts or email messages for ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO). Even personal and family relationships are now becoming increasingly mediated by technology and commerce and thus abstract, exploitable and distant.

Having met a friend for a conversation, he puts a smartphone on the table. This is an important gesture: ‘I am here, but I am also not here, potentially on call or online. I cannot give you my full attention because my attention is now divided between talking with you and the phone, between reality and a machine.’ Conversations themselves have thus become precarious as they are routinely interrupted with ‘sorry, but I have to take this call’. The interrupting call always turns out to be more important than you, distant and virtual information exchange (‘communication’) more important than the intimate, real process of dialogue which needs space, time and uninterrupted, meandering yet focussed awareness in order to be able to develop or even exist at all. Teenage girls may now be interrupted every four or five minutes by the receiving or sending of a message. Neurologically, they are being programmed to ignore reality. They experience the constant interruption as constant ‘connection’. Digitalisation is the generalization of Being as Messaging-and-Being-Perceived, of being interrupted, of absent-mindedness and scatterbrainedness, of increasing intolerance of slowness, focus, complexity, ambiguity, depth. Digitalisation spreads us out like pancakes, it is the generalization of social shallowness.

Smartphones and social media have generalized what 18th century bishop philosopher Berkeley thought of as the human condition itself: ‘to be is to be perceived’ (esse est percipi). If I am not in constant pseudo-contact with my friends and followers, preferably in order to be somehow admired, I do not exist. Our western culture of narcissism has finally found its ideal technology and successfully globalised it. We are all like Samuel Beckett’s Mr. Knott: ‘And Mr. Knott, needing nothing if not, one, not to need, and, two, a witness to his not needing, of himself knew nothing. And so he needed to be witnessed. Not that he might know, no, but that he might not cease.’ (Watt, p. 202)

The Integrated Spectacle

Constant plastic touching and image consumption can be seen as the next, more advanced, level of the ‘spectacle’ in advanced, post-industrial capitalism. It is, in Guy Debord’s terms, the ‘integrated spectacle’, in which man and machine have finally achieved Capitals’ dream and been integrated into one 24/7 image-consumptive unit. Debord: ‘When the spectacle was concentrated [as in the Soviet Union], the greater part of the surrounding society escaped it; when diffuse [as in post-war consumer capitalism], a small part; today, no part.’ In this oxymoronic post-modern mode, capitalist heteronomy is now realised not from without but by ‘free choice’ from within: in the apparent freedom and ‘autonomy’ of people constantly working their personal digital devices to consume programs, services, entertainment made and sold by others. Even when ‘interactive’, this ‘freedom’ is just the usual passive activity of buying and consuming a commodity.

Summary

1. The rapid expansion of digital technologies over the last two decades has greatly magnified all of the inherent tendencies of industrial-capitalist society and its centralised state to increase human alienation and dissociation from nature, from others and from inner nature (body and original self).

2. Unchecked by democratic debate, control and limitation/modification, total digitalisation, the radical cyber-biotechnologies spawned by capitalism’s ‘third industrial revolution’ and geo-engineering have the potential to both ‘rewire’ humans in completely new ways and to create a corresponding new form of ‘nature’ and hyper-capitalist ‘post-industrial’ society: i.e. some form of post-liberal capitalist totalitarianism within a totally controlled artificial environment, a commoditized ‘second nature’ replacing the first nature of the Holocene (both ex- and internal) which global capitalist development has almost irreparably degraded or destroyed.

3. The jokers in the pack of this possible scenario of capitalist Business as Usual are climate chaos, widespread ecosystemic collapse, nuclear war, ‘peak everything’, economic depression, civilisational collapse. Any or a combination of some of these would knock out at least sections of the global digital infrastructure and technology, and thus a great chunk of scientific and cultural memory, causing civilisational regression, much suffering and death.

4. Last but not least, a cultural and social revolution, i.e. the introduction of democratic self-management at work and in society, could halt and transform this ominous trend into a humanly and ecologically sustainable and benign one. Rather than left to ‘markets’, technology can be democratically determined and controlled. Another world is possible.

(Huxley, 1946 introduction to Brave New World: “Only a large-scale popular movement towards decentralization and self-help can arrest the present tendency toward statism. At present there is no sign that such a movement will take place.”)

Digital Alienation 4

•October 16, 2014 • 1 Comment

3 year old with tablet, no toys

[Digital Alienation essay part 4]

The Digital Counter-Evolution

Digital 24/7 connectivity and multi-screening entail an attack on the body and the biological or ‘wild’ self, hitherto the source of much spontaneity and primal revolt against the strictures and coercions of life in industrial capitalism, particularly in youth. Capital is extending its control of nature to the last barriers of our inner natures, with the aim of creating a totally artificial, commodified, manipulable and profitable world in its own image. In late capitalism the body’s evolutionary needs and diurnal rhythms are constantly and increasingly denied on many levels. The need for movement is thwarted by the sedentary coercion of work and screen watching. The need for fresh, nutritious food is thwarted by low-nutrition, industrial processed food. The need for direct, face-to-face human interaction in which we can sense and smell our other, is deflected into exclusively visual, virtual communication.

Another important form of this counter-evolutionary attack on our body-minds is the radical reduction or even abolition of deep sleep, solitude, daydreaming, productive boredom, of withdrawal and ‘self-recollecting’. From a capitalist perspective sleep is wasted time, non-consuming, unproductive, unprofitable time, and should thus be reduced or eliminated. They’re working on it. The US Defense Department is working on the training of a soldier who doesn’t need sleep for at least seven days and remains ‘operational’. Average daily sleeping time in the US has already been almost halved over the course of a century: from ten hours at the beginning of the twentieth century to eight hours in the baby boomer generation to six hours today. Insomnia and other sleep disorders are becoming increasingly common, as are the usage of both chemical stimulants and sleeping pills. People are increasingly taking their digital devices into their bedrooms and consulting them at night or on first awaking. Many are thus tending, like their devices, to go into shallow ‘sleep mode’ rather than radically ‘turning off’. This amounts to the reduction, degradation or elimination of biological and psycho-spiritual self-rejuvenation, indeed of the self itself ‒ at least in the old sense of ‘self’. Both daydreaming and deep sleep are essential for creativity as well as the renewal of mind, body and spirit. Any reduction or disturbing of sleep may also decrease memory and learning consolidation and thus intelligence.

All this is counter-evolutionary: daily life in advanced capitalism and its digital information overload are over-stressing us and clashing with our fundamentally ‘analog’ natures as human beings, removing us ‘from our own nature as complex, unpredictable, passionate people’, and, by reducing reality to the digital binaries of our genetic DNA code, is also ‘evolutionarily regressive’ (physicist Neil Turok ).

The Total Work/Leisure Society

Digitalisation, casual and precarious jobs and digital workaholism mean the abolition of the leisure/work distinction, with the latter consuming the former; it’s unpaid (and precarious) overtime for the Man, or we’ll outsource you to Mumbai. Leisure time is now also uninterrupted around-the-clock consumption. Just as in our Orwellian and increasingly totalitarian capitalism, war is peace and freedom (wage) slavery, the ‘leisure society’ is the total work/consumption society in which total connection also means increased isolation and alienation.

Virtual (un)Fulfilment

Like advertising in general, this technology works cleverly via perennial human needs: needs for the peer group/family, for convenience, for status within the peer group, the need for (apparent) escape from emptiness, boredom, unease, from personal insecurities… Capital promises to fulfil all these needs in the only way it can: ‘virtually’, i.e. vicariously, artificially, now in a ‘smart-phony’ way, always leaving the dissatisfaction and profound emptiness in its trail that is needed to keep the cycle of manic consumption of commodities and images perpetual. In this it is the same as drug addiction. The internet and screen addictions have virtualised and globalised the addictive cycle inherent in the commodity form.

Cyber-Paleolithic

Videos, ads, movies… these rapid changes of images on screens cleverly utilize our Paleolithic survival-wiring which automatically responds to quick movement and change in the environment because that may indicate potential danger. We thus find it very difficult not to look, to turn away. Mesmerised, capitalist marketing literally has us by the eyeballs. Once hooked by this hyper-activity, we can be sold the message, the commodity, the drug. The new capitalist sciences of data mining, neuro-marketing etc now survey us as we browse and buy, search online and watch TV, and now personalise or ‘micro-target’ their manipulative techniques accordingly.

Brand New World

Next we may even see the loss not just of book shops, but of shops. The ancient temples of trade and capitalism are becoming increasingly virtual. In-store shopping will increasingly be digitally monitored and marketing manipulations personally targeted. Online shopping even gets rid of the sensory appraisal of actual commodities in favour of their digital image representations. To compensate for unsatisfying lives and work under capitalism, people have long been buying brands (images, promises of ‘experiences’ and status, exchange values) more than useful objects (use values). Now the brands have increasingly moved from the actual commodities (which, as brands, are already tradable images of use-value) to the digital images of these image-commodities. Brands, as pseudo-persons on Facebook just like the walking human brands known as ‘celebrities’, now have millions of online ‘friends’ or ‘followers’. After decades of televised mass, the Catholic Church brand now also has a commodity called ‘mass on demand’ for the commuter smartphone: Christ’s Body is now also as virtual as the host offered by the virtual priest. Capitalism’s Protestantism has finally won the bloody theological battle over transubstantiation by technologically abolishing the mystery of the Eucharist, and thus Christianity, itself.

Digital Alienation 3

•October 11, 2014 • 7 Comments

icrime baby 1

[Digital Alienation part 3]

Speed Toxicity = Losing our Senses

Digitalisation is inseparable from the humanly noxious effects of speed. Human senses are inherently slow. Via digitalisation, the increasing speed of capitalist ‘just-in-time’ production, speculation, accumulation, turnover, throughput, consumption now determines the turbo-charged sensory and mental texture of everyone’s everyday life. There is the physical and mental speed of hyper-urban living (now the experience of half of humanity), the technology- and capital-induced work and life speed-up and ‘multitasking’, the loss of slow, body-grounded presence and the sensory here and now… As we now also increasingly ‘multitask’, ‘multiscreen’ and live ‘just in time’ like capitalist production itself, are we now perhaps in the process of literally and figuratively ‘losing our senses’, as well as our ‘common sense’, or can we still find some way of slowing down and returning to them? Among all the outer and inner busyness and noise that tends to make all life into an undifferentiated blur, the speedy sameness of incessant pseudo-novelty that never satisfies, can we still find the slowness and silence that allows us to breathe, notice the exquisite fine differences of non-virtual reality, come back into contact with our body and older, deeper selves (Thomas Merton: ‘Silence is the strength of our interior life. Silence enters into the very core of our moral being, so that if we have no silence we have no morality.’)

Real Abstraction

Everything in late ‘financialised’ casino capitalism is becoming ever more like its driving principle, money: a ‘concrete abstraction’ from qualities and human values and nature (money, the commodity and capital in Marx’ radical analysis are real-world, i.e. non-mental, abstractions from the qualitative, sensuous ‘use value’ of things and relationships, and any kind of wage labour, as just another quantifiable and disposable market commodity, is thus ‘abstract work’). The late industrial spectacle, total market society, reductionist science and digitalisation are just differing aspects of this one historical process of real abstraction set in train by the invention of money and the ‘great inversion’ to market-driven societies in the capitalism of the industrial revolution.

The Information Fetish

Digital information is what knowledge has become under late capitalism. The commodity of digital ‘information’, binary, crude and unambiguous, is the tradable exchange-value form of the qualitative and analog use-value called ‘knowledge’. It has the same relation to mere training as knowledge has to real education. Like money or capital, information promises its owner power, control, prestige, wealth. Like money and all commodities, information is a ‘fetish’, an abstraction from the richness of use-value, from the unmeasurable, beautiful and ethical qualities of knowledge. In late capitalism’s ‘post-industrial’ economy digital information can thus become the new ‘oil’, the key commodity and industry, just as oil, cars, chemicals and culture industry were for 20th century capitalism, steel and electricity were for monopoly capitalism, iron, coal and textiles were for early liberal capitalism. The evolution of Western culture can be traced as a movement from pre-modern (mainly oral) wisdom through modern (mainly print) knowledge to post-modern (mainly digital) information. As with any natural or human object that capitalism has reduced to a quantitatively defined economic ‘resource’ by violently abstracting from its specific qualities, crude data are collected, bought, broken down, analysed and refined into ‘information’, a commodity that can be further bought and sold and used to make profits or to manipulate and control people.

Digital Alienation 2

•October 9, 2014 • 2 Comments

banksy_free what are you looking at

[Part 2 of the Digital Alienation essay. Image by Banksy]

The Utopia of Total Capitalism

Total capitalism can be envisaged as a super-organism or series of Russian dolls, with each level nested within the next higher. We are fast approaching a generalised market society of isolated singles and transient couples or blended/virtual ‘families’ living inside artificially cocooned screen worlds sitting inside globally homogenised, hyper-urban high-rise environments. These are totally dominated by capital and commodities and devoid of even the last vestiges of plants and animals apart from a few rats, cockroaches and a few other wily generalists. Digitally spread out everywhere, we are in fact nowhere (Greek u-topia: no-place). We are in an oxymoronic abstract space called ‘cyberspace’, a space both material (copper wires, electromagnetic waves etc.) and immaterial. This dystopian nowhere of abstraction is capitalism’s concrete utopia. It is the technological expression of the abstract materialism of its key elements, the commodity and capital. The commodity is also material (an object, a use-value) and immaterial (an exchange value, a price), both a concrete object or service and an abstraction from nature and its producer and essentially defined by monetary value. Cut off materially and mentally from the real sources of ‘use-values’, i.e. our food, water, energy, vitality, we are becoming more and more enclosed in an artificial, commoditised world of anthropocentric narcissism, a material and mental bubble of abstract exchange values which may only burst in some very concrete form of economic, ecological or nuclear apocalypse.

The Utopia of the Total State

Twenty-first century digitalisation has fused the twentieth century dystopias of Zamyatin’s novel We, Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwells’ 1984 in best Hegelian fashion: by integrating and transcending them at a higher level. We now truly live in a potentially totalitarian panopticon beyond the liberal state’s and early capitalism’s (Jeremy Bentham’s) wildest dreams: the glass walls are now both in our rooms and in our own hands. With smartphones and car e-tags we carry around the tools of our own surveillance, both as surveillers and surveilled. We both objectify ourselves in images, texts and data gathering (‘the objectified self’) and are ourselves trackable everywhere, our every movement, information search, download, purchase, communication, loaned library book gathered, stored, cross-referenced, evaluated, usually in the form of oceans of ‘metadata’ gathered by corporate and state surveillance. Urban coverage by mini-drones, mini-cameras, CCTV is becoming near total. The totalitarian Gestapo/SD, Stasi and KGB were still punch-card analog, i.e. in the surveillance stone-age compared to the current Big Brother practices of the NSA and allied agencies, which are truly total and thus truly totalitarian. This is more than the elimination of privacy, an important material condition of individualism, independence and dissent. With the inevitable trajectory of the oligarchic state, the total gathering of data on citizens is already moving from the passive to the repressive and interventionist. The Ukrainian government, for example, has already used messages to mobile phones to warn people intending to join demonstrations. Technically it is also possible to hack into webcams on people’s computers to spy on them, directly realising Orwell’s vision.

Distraction from Distraction

Even before digitalisation, we were all increasingly ‘amusing ourselves to death’ (Neil Postman) and ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’ (T.S. Eliot). We are now also distracted from realising the paradox of information overload and visual over-stimulation as the ultimate dominator tools for pacification, turning off (compassion fatigue), desensitizing, dumbing down. Too much information can be as depoliticising as too little. 150 channels and nothing on. Climate chaos, catastrophes, wars, epidemics, mass movements, revolutions, celebrity divorces, the latest phone app. Click here to save the planet. Yawn.

Digital Alienation: Evolutionary Shift to a Total Ecology of Capital 1

•October 8, 2014 • Leave a Comment

data_age

[This is critical polemic against the dehumanizing effects of total digitalisation. The positive aspects of the internet and digital revolution have been left to another essay. I'll be publishing this essay in small segments to cater for the short attentions span that online reading encourages.]

Digital Alienation: Evolutionary Shift to a Total Ecology of Capital

…the internet, with all its attractions, is also profoundly dehumanizing. […] Overload of digital information turns us into automata, workaholics, passive consumers. Its harsh physical form stresses us and creates a mismatch between our own human nature and the manner in which we are being forced to communicate. Our anolog nature is being compressed into a digital stream.

- Neil Turok, The Universe Within, p. 203

In the past the man has been first, in the future the system must be first.

- Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management (1911), p. 7

‘A life of presence, nothing but presence’
– Graffito in Paris May 1968

Taboo

Capitalism-friendly digital technology is in command, and there is very little critical discussion about its profound implications and ambivalence anywhere, even among many of those purporting to be critical of capitalism. This may be partly a generational phenomenon, with young ‘digital natives’ having no other experience or criteria against which to evaluate the complex effects of digitalisation (e.g. reading books and newspapers, solitude).

Endpoint

Digitalisation is the extreme intensification of an evolutionary shift underway in human identity ‒ as hitherto found in our mind-body, body-nature and interpersonal relationships ‒ that really took off with industrialization and consumerism. It intensifies the increasing alienation of humanity from outer nature and its evolutionary interrelationship with our inner nature or core identity as human beings on this planet. Even as industrialisation and hyper-urbanisation are destroying and tending to replace nature, digitalisation is changing our inner nature, our very minds and biology. The unconscious aim – intrinsic to the logic of the historical development ‒ is to adapt us to this world after nature, to a totalised ecology of Capital.

The Great Rewiring

Apart from its obvious personal and social benefits (which are not our concern here), digitalisation is stepping up the re-wiring of humanity into depoliticised, privatised ‘idiots’ begun by post-war TV consumerism and the culture industry (the word ‘idiot’ derives from the Greek ‘idiotes’, private person, layman, ignorant person, from ‘idios’, own, private). This now even starts with the toddler market. Infants are placed before animated screens above their cots. Children have their own smartphones. Children and youth now spend more time with screen realities than with human or natural ones.

Manifesto for a General Strike for Life

•September 23, 2014 • 4 Comments

ron cobb old man and pavement

[Written January 2003, just before the US Imperial invasion of Iraq. The General Strike was the key tool in the toolbox of classical anarcho-syndicalism. Image by great 60/70s cartoonist Ron Cobb.]

Manifesto for a General Strike for Life

Martin, I too have a dream
of us coming out of our shells

out of our TV shells, car shells, work shells
fatigue shells, fear shells, mortgage rat-race shells
sex, drugs and rock & roll shells

our shopaholic shells, our party shells
class, age and gender shells
out of our tribe and nation shells
(yep, those especially)

to acknowledge, respect
embrace the others
the others out there
the others in here

the victims
the dark others
the dispossessed, the despised
the downtrodden

the children, women, men
bombed, tortured, starved, exploited
ignored, silences, oppressed
by Empire
on our behalf
in our names
to keep our economies ticking over
the cheap resources flowing
shares and supers growing

I have a dream:
we simply
stop

stop believing in leaders
in pulling our heads in
in private solutions to public problems
in leaving the thinking to others

I have a dream
we finally listen
to what we know already

to the breath of the future
in our bones

unplug our minds from Their sockets
slow down, relax
look, laugh, cry, look again

organise our networks
our debate and dissent
solidarity and solitude

that we use our most powerful weapon:
simply withdraw our support, disaffiliate
from the whole crazy racket

from the powerful, the products
we don’t need, the elections
of different wings of the same Party
media that keep it all nicely ticking over
like a time bomb on speed

that we reach out to each other
and into our deepest selves:
our sisters and brothers
in huts, hovels and high-rises
camps and prisons
forests, farms, rivers

in soil and sea
in the stars of the heavens
in the furthest reaches of the mind
the darkest depths of dream

where we meet ourselves
as others

where we frighten ourselves
as others

where we inspire ourselves
as others

I have a dream
we all sit down
at the table of righteousness

the high and the low
the black and the white
the refugee and the retiree

drink of the wine of compassion
eat of the bread of insight

that we proclaim
a General Strike For Life
for peace, for justice, for solidarity

that we vigorously, seditiously conspire
to wage a very radical peace
against Empire, against the powerful
who threaten our world and our children

that we organise our realised democracy
town by town, valley by valley
continent by continent

till we cover this round blue globe
with the laughing light
of freedom

Shadows. An Essay on Bleakness and Hope 2

•September 10, 2014 • 9 Comments

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

[Second part of the Shadows essay. Endnotes have again been left out. Another abstract photo from the beach at Currarong.]

Shadows. An Essay on Bleakness and Hope 2

Hope From Out of the Shadows

In the spring and summer of my ‘politicisation’ (an awkward but widely used term in Germany at the time) during the late sixties and early seventies, the relationships between the collective shadow and the everyday were different, of course, and yet also similar. As conscious participants in the international student movement, youth culture and later eco-movement of the time, the predominant shadow of the fifties and early sixties, the shadow of The Bomb, was largely pushed aside, relegated to the periphery, ignored by us hopeful student radicals. In Germany our adversaries were fairly clear and ethically self-evident: the Holocaust-repressing, Nazi collusion-denying generation of our parents, authoritarian (and even ex-Nazi) establishment figures of all kinds, the pervasive spiritual aridity and meaninglessness of body- and soul-denying consumerism, capitalism’s structural violence of everyday life, western governments’ various collusions with US imperialism and war crimes in Indochina.

We thus chose definable, combatable shadows, as it were, our revolt as much political and moral as it was diffusely aesthetic and cultural. The latter forms or revolt were in fact probably primary in the sense of visceral, non-intellectual, almost biological or instinctual. (Like kundalini energy in the esoteric body of Tantrism, the social energy seems to move first through the primary chakras of sexuality, gut and heart before reaching the head and becoming rational opinion and theory).

We had a global explanation (‘late capitalism’), a clearly responsible adversary (‘the establishment’, i.e. the order-givers of late capitalism) and, above all, a not always articulated but strong and pervading sense of hope. The latter seemed to initially arise spontaneously out of the very synergy – the dynamics, social impacts and vitalising energy ‒ of the movement itself. There was a subtle but definite sense of being-in-sync-with-something-larger, of the real possibility of some vague but sudden planetary shift to something more exciting and better.

When this feeling ebbed (in Germany perhaps already in late 1968 after the Easter riots, the collapse of the wild utopian promise of the Parisian May and the brutal Soviet military destruction of Czech ‘socialism with a human face’), the sense of hope transferred itself more and more to explicit theoretical constructs and utopias of various kinds: ‘socialism’, ‘self-management’, ‘post-scarcity anarchism’, then to ‘eco-topia’ and an ‘alternative society’. In the later seventies the latter then merged seamlessly with the emerging struggles against nuclear power and later, in the early eighties, with the renewed global peace movement against Reagan’s threats of ‘limited and winnable’ nuclear war and the European deployment of new US and Soviet nuclear first strike weaponry that made intentional or unintentional nuclear war much more likely.

The late eighties and early nineties then saw a renewed upsurge of mass interest in all things environmental, stimulated in the main by the twin shock realizations of ozone depletion and global warming. Hope was then bound up with the possibility of the nineties becoming a ‘turnaround decade’ in which the newly liberated post-Cold War global energies (the so-called ‘peace dividend’) would now turn to building ecologically sustainable and socially just societies. This feeling faded quite rapidly after the corporate hijacking of the UN Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 and its ‘ecological sustainability’ agenda, although some hope lingered to a degree at local levels where communities all over the planet endeavoured to facilitate forms of ‘ecologically sustainable development’ within the ‘Local Agenda 21’ process spawned at the Rio conference.

Since then hope has begun to crystallize again in the now very consciously planetary (and mis-named) ‘anti-globalisation’ movement initially surfacing as the indigenous Zapatista uprising against the NAFTA process in Mexico in 1994 and the street riots against the WTO in Seattle in 1999 and then crystallising in the World Social Forum meetings in Brazil and India (with increasingly large numbers of participants from all over the world).

The World Social Forum then facilitated or helped stimulate the first fully and consciously global demonstrations for peace and against an impending imperial war, the second US war against Iraq. Held on March 15/16, 2003 and encompassing between 10 and 30 million people, these demonstrations were, in both scope and deep meaning, an almost millennial, spiritual event and an immense source of hope for a rising global utopian consciousness of the ultimate oneness of the human family and planetary ecology.

So the social movements embodying human hope and countering the ‘objective’ bleakness of social and ecological conditions have continued to evolve since the sixties, moving in the usual, seemingly universal, cycles of surge and ebb, of birth, climax and decay and forming shifting, complex interrelationships with each other.

The Loss of Utopia

However, to a large extent the ‘utopian imagination’, the ‘poetry of revolt’ and radical theory that characterised the essence of the sixties and seventies movements and uprisings, seem to have often atrophied or disappeared under the relentless global march of neoliberalism. The zeitgeist is no longer utopian. In many ways this is very understandable and, especially from a very common sense, pragmatic and rational perspective that is sceptical of all speculative, do-gooding and ‘totalizing’ attitudes , perhaps even to be welcomed. Compared with the sixties, the times are economically, socially and ecologically more dismal, much faster, more precarious and complex, on some levels perhaps even more dangerous. Various waves of historical development seem to be super-imposing and coming to a head on many interrelated levels. The so-called ‘post-modern’ zeitgeist is pluralist, relativist, de-centred, hyper-individualist, sceptical and wary of all ‘grand narratives’, utopian or otherwise. In this radical neo-scepticism it seems both refreshingly anti-totalitarian and an unconsciously conformist, radical regression or ‘dumbing down’, an ideological (unconscious) reflection of neo-liberal economic and cultural hegemony since Thatcher and Reagan.

The necessary consequence of this prevalent stance, however, is the loss of a centred perspective and utopian hope. It would seem the utopian baby has been thrown out with the dogmatic Marxist or ‘grand narrative’ bathwater. As in personal life, social and political issues also tend to fall apart into disconnected single issues (social justice, peace, the environment, genetic engineering etc. etc. and a plethora of local holding actions) and there is no critical perspective of some core dynamic driving events, no directionality, no coherent ‘grand narrative’ if you will, to link these fragments into some cohesive, overall framework of meaning. (It is also part of the naïve or self-contradictory nature of radically sceptical post- modernism to ignore the fact that to say ‘there is no more grand narrative’ is of course itself also a ‘grand narrative’, and one that eminently suits the powers that be).

One of the reasons for this state of affairs is surely the strong erosion or almost disappearance of a sense of history and tradition, and, linked to this and more specifically, of the legacy of the previous ‘grand narrative’. The original, post-Christian and secular ‘grand narrative’ that gave hope and thus meaning to millions of lives in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was, of course, ‘socialism’ in all its many forms.

If ‘religions’ can be anthropologically and sociologically defined as encompassing meaning-providing cognitive, ritual and social frameworks , then ‘socialism’ (despite or, indeed, because of its ‘scientific’ pretensions) certainly was one. Developing out of and against the bourgeois democratic ideals of the Enlightenment and within the historical context of the rise of the industrial working class, for millions it tended to replace the gradual erosion of Christianity as a social binding force in the west. In terms of mass influence it has now joined Christianity in the notorious dustbins of history. And in terms of the well-deserved demise of dogmatic mainstream ‘socialism’ or the ‘Old Left’ since at least 1914, this is only to be welcomed.

However, with nothing really replacing Christianity and socialism, there is a social vacuum of meaning, values and perceptual orientation that is necessarily filled by other things. It can be filled by consumerism, political disengagement and private withdrawal and a corresponding generalised, disengaged bleakness shading off into the mainstream neo-liberal frenzy and spiritual aridity of competitive individualism and the ‘market personality’ (Erich Fromm). ‘We can’t change the world, let’s go shopping’.

The spiritual and social vacuum can also be filled by various religiously sectarian, populist and/or reactionary fundamentalisms often seemingly preparing, or at least awaiting, some modernised form of fascism. Sometimes in direct, mutually strengthening communication with the latter proto-fascisms, moreover, the social and spiritual vacuum can also be filled by the official spectacles and ideologies of nationalism, militarism and imperial wars that attempt to bind together the disengaged and isolated masses for the usual system-controlling purposes of the ruling elites.

War has always been the ‘health of the state’ (Randolph Bourne), both of the existing states and the nascent ones of fundamentalism. The state terror of war increases small-scale counter-terror which increases state authoritarianism and terror in a self-reinforcing downward spiral of violence and repression. The authoritarian, nationalist or militarist forces of all sides need each other to cement and increase their own power and influence.

The hope is that a critical mass of people linking across national boundaries can resist the hegemony of ruling elites in framing the issues as one’s of ‘national security’ and ‘national interest’. The hope is that a critical mass or people can globally network into a powerful force for systemic change and human survival. The hope is that a critical mass of people can come to realise that any ‘national interest’ is now a planetary interest in maintaining peace and a viable biosphere, that any ‘security’ now entails the security of everyone on the planet, i.e. social justice and the elimination of capitalism. The hope is that the spiritual vacuum can be filled by the realisation of being One Human Family on One Beautiful but Endangered Planet.

We are all, consciously or unconsciously, pulled between bleakness and hope. Given both the enormity and urgency of the threats and the gradually emerging, increasingly networking, global movements for deep social change, both would seem eminently rational.

 
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