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Does Preaching Apocalypse Work?

Catastrophic rhetoric does not a revolution make.

Part of the Series

In an era of hegemonic cynicism and resignation (important countercurrents like Occupy notwithstanding), activists’ use of catastrophic rhetoric apparently does not by itself activate mass-revolutionary movements to counter the forces responsible for eco-destruction. What will?

Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth (PM Press, 2012) by Sasha Lilley, Eddie Yuen, James Davis, David McNally.

No other hope is left to the past than that, exposed defenselessly to disaster; it shall emerge from it as something different.
– Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia

The newly released Apocalyptic Politics of Catastrophism: The Collapse and Rebirth would seem to address a thoroughly relevant intersection of contemporary critical issues: the ongoing climate crisis, economic decline, right-wing resurgence and general social anxiety regarding the specter of collapse. Given the strong praise found for Catastrophism on the inset of the book – it is “definitive and momentous,” in George Katsiaficas’ estimation, while Andrej Grubačić “cannot overstate how critically important this volume is” – one might be led to think that Catastrophism in fact features a great deal of new, critical thought on these questions. While it is true that the authors of the work make some important points regarding the very real catastrophes of capitalism today, it is my view that much of their argumentation is not that innovative, with some of it serving to obscure rather than illuminate. It is also not clear that the principal interventions in the book are very helpful in political terms. In my comments below, I will focus mainly on Lilley and Yuen’s contributions to the volume, to the exclusion of McNally’s pop-culture analysis of the famous “zombie apocalypse” and Davis’s treatment of right-wing catastrophism – largely because I feel these essays are less interesting.

For Lilley, Catastrophism represents a “political intervention, designed to spur debate among radicals” about questions revolving around catastrophe. She, like the other contributors to the book, defines the eponymous socio-political orientation that comes under fire here as one that “presumes that society is headed for a collapse, whether economic, ecological, social or spiritual;” catastrophists are held to believe “frequently, but not always” that said collapse is to be “regarded as a great cleansing, out of which a new society will be born.”

Among those who see destruction and decline on the horizon, catastrophists of less authoritarian persuasions are said to “believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber,” catalyzing radical breaks with the false consciousness imposed by bourgeois-patriarchal hegemony and presumably leading to the insurrectional overturning of the prevailing system which itself is responsible for the prevalence of destruction and despair.

On the other hand, Lilley and company warn that catastrophism, in stressing “panic and powerlessness,” runs the risk of promoting “the vanguardist politics of the few,” with a putatively enlightened cadre leading the supposedly heretofore conservative masses to smash unreason and realize freedom and revolution, à la Jacobins, Bolsheviks or Maoists. Claiming empirically to examine the “track record” of politics framed in catastrophic terms, Lilley et al conclude that such philosophies “do not serve the Left and the environmental movement,” given that an increased awareness among the general populace of catastrophic conditions – social, ecological, political – in no way necessarily leads people in general to shift toward radical, anti-systemic positions. This phenomenon is especially evident in US society, the main focus of the contributors to Catastrophism.

Nonetheless, Lilley is forthright about her own analysis of the capitalist system – “by its very nature, capitalism is catastrophic,” with the “ecological catastrophe” driven by capitalism undoubtedly being “the greatest and most serious” of all others facing humanity and life on earth in the present day – and she and her comrades clearly reject any sort of Leninist attempt to resolve the present crisis, affirming instead the “importance of mass radical organizing.”

Rapidly closing off the chance for an exploration of these tantalizing suggestions, Lilley demarcates the scope of Catastrophism in a rather limited way, excluding from consideration historical analyses of revolutionary mass movements and their relationship to catastrophe, as well as that of important thinkers like Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno, who largely dedicated their intellectual lives to investigating the “question of catastrophe and the Left,” as Lilley herself observes in passing. Also consciously excluded is an analysis of possible methods by which activists and concerned people might “politicize the apathetic and revitalize a broad anticapitalist project.”

Lilley expands upon her introductory comments in her essay “Great Chaos Under Heaven” – the title itself a reference to Mao Zedong’s infamous observation on his Cultural Revolution, that “the situation is excellent.”

Following from the overtly anti-capitalist aims delineated in her introduction, Lilley here writes that capitalism is neither natural nor eternal, thus clearly opposing bourgeois apologism as well as the highly alienated comments made by thinkers like Slavoj Zizek regarding the relative ease with which one can foresee the destruction of the planet before imagining the end of capitalism. Claiming that the “cardinal strength” of capitalism is its “immense and terrible dynamism,” she controversially notes that capital cannot be expected to be dismantled by anything other than “protracted mass struggle.”

Lilley’s main focus in this essay is to examine what she calls the “dyad” of left-wing catastrophism: determinism and voluntarism. Though largely old-fashioned these days, the former position is no less well-known; perusing the various examples Lilley provides of Marxist and Lenino-Stalinist proclamations about the terminal crises of capitalism over the past century – bourgeois imperialism cannot last more than ten years, and so on – one cannot help but be amused at such delusional optimism, if it were not for the grim fact that these very same forces rule the day presently, with clearly catastrophic results.

Lilley shows voluntarism on the other hand to be equally problematic, if not more so: It is predicated on the mechanistic notion that the worse conditions in general get, the better these must be for revolutionary prospects. Arguing (perhaps inadvertently) against orthodox Marxian analyses, Lilley points out that labor strikes in the US historically have been most frequent and intense during periods of economic expansion, with the notable exception of the 1930s. Analyzing this same time period in Germany’s history, she, like many of the theorists of the Frankfurt School, roundly states that the “ascent of the Nazis to power ought to have provided a mortal blow to the concept that catastrophic political and economic conditions inexorably lead down the road to radicalization and socialist revolution,” the fanatical-triumphalist declarations of the German Communist Party (“after Hitler, our turn”) notwithstanding. Moving forward in time from this point, she takes groups like the Weather Underground and the Red Army Faction (RAF) to task for their strategy of “heightening the contradictions” toward the provocation of thoroughgoing state repression – an attempt, as they theorized, at revealing the truly fascist nature of the State, hidden temporarily behind its liberal-democratic facade – that might stir the subordinated into rising up and smashing the system altogether; indeed, she associates much of contemporary insurrectionism, anarchist and libertarian-communist, with this constellation of tactics.

Personally, I think Lilley vastly overstates her critique of insurrectionism here by indelibly linking it to a centralist practice that seeks coercively to force the inactive masses into action: She repeats this mistake in her analysis of the December 2008 revolt in Greece, in which she greatly distorts the role insurrectionists played in those events by claiming that their goal was to provoke the declaration of martial law and hence catalyze a “civil war” from below in response – so as to fit her general thesis regarding groups like the Weathermen and the RAF.1

Nonetheless, her criticisms of the dismissal by some insurrectionists of strategies like working toward workers’ self-management seem legitimate, as clearly do her denunciations of the entirely authoritarian proponents of anti-civilization/primitivist viewpoints; her comparison of these types with the Trotskyist Juan Posadas and Mao, who madly found revolutionary potential in the prospect of nuclear war, is a fruitful one. In sum, she critiques her objects of study as desiring a “shortcut for the urgent,” claiming that the common link between left-wing determinism and voluntarism is “political despair,” a “deep-seated pessimism about mass collective action and radical social transformation.” While Lilley does not explicitly say so, it would seem that she instead favors the analyses of Anton Pannekoek, who, as she notes, theorizes the “collapse of capitalism” deriving from “the self-emancipation of the proletariat.” Against orientations she terms adventurist, Lilley defends the old-school notion of “understanding the conjuncture” and “engaging the presumably deluded masses” – a praxis she arguably exemplifies well with her Against the Grain radio show (KPFA).

In “The Politics of Failure Have Failed,” Eddie Yuen focuses on climate change and the prospects for radical movements to address it from within core-imperialist societies. He notes clearly that “catastrophism is rampant among self-identified environmentalists, and not without good reason – after all, the best evidence points to cascading environmental disaster” – the present environmental crisis corresponds “unquestionably” to a “genuinely catastrophic moment in human and planetary history.” In the footnotes to his intervention – though strangely, not in the text itself – Yuen enumerates some of the various socio-ecological catastrophes promised by the climatic destabilization being driven by (post)modernity: “The displacement of millions due to coastal inundation, the salinization of much agricultural land, the ‘cooking’ of Africa, the obliteration of entire ecosystems such as coral reefs, the desertification of the Amazon, the disappearance of the glacial-fed rivers of Asia and South America, the extinction of at least 35 percent of global species,” and so on.

Faced with these horrors, Yuen declares it to be absolutely imperative to begin to attempt to resolve this crisis by “effectively and rapidly changing the direction of human society,” noting in particular that it is the “status quo of capitalist production of unnecessary commodities and services for the global elites and ‘middle classes’ [which] is the ongoing catastrophe that must be addressed.” The revolutionary social goals he identifies aside, Yuen dedicates much of the space of his essay to warning against an “undifferentiated catastrophism” which holds, in standard traditional-environmental terms, that “apocalyptic warnings will lead to political action.”

Citing a 2008 investigation into US attitudes about climate change, Yuen claims that a strategy which relies on increasing popular awareness of eco-catastrophe in fact hinders the crucial effort to bring about the social transformations that would be commensurate with the depth of the ecological crisis, as those under study were seen to become more apathetic, rather than less, following exposure to news of the ever-worsening crisis. While his conclusion here seems somewhat strange, given that elsewhere he decries the “ignorance of the general public, including the political left” about recent climatological findings, noting that the horrors global warming promises to entail for the peoples of the global South are “largely unknown to the publics of the rich world,” he does offer some productive analysis regarding this strange phenomenon, identifying four main barriers to moving toward policies to promote climate justice within US society: “catastrophe fatigue, the paralyzing effects of fear, the pairing of overwhelmingly bleak analysis with inadequate solutions and a misunderstanding of the process of politicization.”

Yuen observes that notions of the apocalypse have been largely banalized within mainstream US culture, given its ubiquity within the mass media, such that this oversaturated cultural field makes hope for a general transition to more ecological lifestyles on the one hand, coupled on the other with activist orientations targeting capitalism as the root cause of the very real crisis rather illusory.

He also criticizes rhetoric espousing environmental doom as playing into the hands of the political right and the State rather than those of the Left; comparing eco-catastrophist discourse with DARE programs that seek to discourage youth from using illegal drugs, Yuen observes that most people subjected to such framing inevitably dismiss such approaches for being inadequate in their proffered solutions, which are individualist and hence blind to structural considerations. As with electoral voting in the US, most people “know better” than to endorse such strategies, claims Yuen: But one wonders, is the converse true? Is there a radical potential latent within the US populace at large that seeks seriously to dismantle the institutions that perpetuate the precipitate destruction of the biosphere – one that would readily emerge, if given an actual chance to influence the course of society and the future?

Yuen seems to think so – hence his endorsement of “a range of creative, directly democratic, and collective projects” to deal with climate change; yet his analysis regarding the fourth major barrier he sees to the creation of an effective, radical environmental movement – the differing societal conditions of 2012 as compared to the 1960s, with cynicism, resignation and egotism now far more hegemonic within the US populace at large (consider his comparison of the popular reactions to the 1968 My Lai mass-killings with the relative indifference evinced following news of the 2005 Haditha massacre) – does not provide for a great deal of optimism in this regard. It is nonetheless curious that Yuen does not here explore or even mention the rise of Occupy/Decolonize in the US, and its great potential.

Yuen closes his essay by warning once again against the employment of environmental catastrophism, as he feels a reliance on such rhetoric can “only encourage a positive feedback loop of chaos and authoritarianism.” Rather questionably, he claims that Left-green catastrophism “remains Malthusian at its core.” He thus associates warnings of the coming eco-catastrophes with the “world-historical reactionary” Thomas Malthus, as Doug Henwood refers to him in the preface to Catastrophism. This labeling is indeed problematic and mistaken: To stress the centrality of imperialism and capitalism’s grow-or-die imperative, as many leftists concerned with ecology do, is in no way to blame growing populations of impoverished peoples for environmental decline!2 One can detect other instances of similar problems in Yuen’s essay, particularly when he juxtaposes the possibility of four billion deaths due to climate-induced mass-starvation in the 21st century with claims that such eventualities would merely constitute “evidence of consistency [rather] than novel catastrophe” in the history of capitalism, given the “triage of humanity” this imperialist system has been overseeing during the past five centuries. Rather self-evidently, this framing appears sedative rather than revolutionary; it does not seemingly lend itself to activating the militant, insurrectional outrage that considerations of such horrors likely should catalyze!

In this sense, Yuen’s closing comments regarding the “spirit of joyful rebellion” seem somewhat bizarre – indeed, schizophrenic. Faced with the enormity of barbarism and destruction threatened by capital, a sad militancy might be more appropriate. Similarly questionable is his announcement in closing that those concerned with the destruction of the climate “can’t wait for capitalism to implode before offering solutions” – perhaps they should, as Henwood suggests, anemically call for “things like regulations [and] limits on the freedom to invest!”

Urging the emerging climate justice movements to offer residents of the global North a positive “opportunity to escape alienation and exploitation for a chance to build something new,” Yuen stresses that such associations must “make a positive appeal to community and solidarity, rather than a moralistic plea for austerity and discipline.” Framing the issue in this way, Yuen seemingly ignores that any meaningful sense of solidarity and community includes within it strong ethical imperatives regarding political justice and social organization3 – surely principal among these would be averting complicity with the mass-destruction of the most oppressed of the world first and foremost, rather than indulgently working to better one’s own lot and shore up one’s geographical privilege!

Moving beyond the passing criticisms I have offered of Catastrophism in my exegesis above of its principal essays and contributors, I should like to dedicate this second half to a more considered critical discussion of the points raised by Lilley and Yuen (and Henwood), given the importance of the questions they examine in the work, as set against the undoubtedly catastrophic backdrop of capitalist rule in the world today.

For one, I would very clearly like to express my concern regarding the empirical basis of one of the book’s main arguments, if not its most central one: That is, that the resort to employing catastrophic rhetoric produces apathy rather than activism. As much as Lilley feels she is justified in claiming that “catastrophic politics” have “a lengthy track record of failure” – a “very poor track record” – it can hardly be said that she and her colleagues prove this claim in any sense. Indeed, “the evidence” she cites as being brought forward in Yuen’s essay on environmental politics amounts to nothing more than one study conducted of US attitudes on climate change in 2008! Obviously, this is an extremely weak basis for grounding such strong claims regarding “catastrophism,” not to mention an entire book dedicated to condemning it. What is more, such claims contradict the recent shifts seen in US public opinion regarding climate change, with a far greater percentage of the populace now believing in its existence and immediate urgency, following last summer’s drought in the Midwest and especially Hurricane Sandy.4 Beyond that, one could readily point to a number of shattering human successes arising from the intersection of catastrophe and mass-radical politics – the “history” that Lilley decides to exclude from consideration in her volume – from the destruction of monarchy and feudalism that began with the revolutionary intervention of the starving masses in France, 1789, to the overthrowing of formal slavery in Haiti/Saint Domingue a few years later, the mass self-defense and self-management engaged in by Parisian proletarians during the few weeks their Commune flourished before its suppression in 1871, the heroic efforts by the Russian people to topple czarism in 1905 and again in February 1917, the resort to mass armed struggle by the Spanish when faced with the specter of a fascist takeover in 1936 – recall that this experiment yielded the most thoroughgoing anarchist reorganization of society in modern history, and was catalyzed importantly by the catastrophic recognition of the prospect for barbarism, as summarized eloquently in Dolores Ibárruri’s radio announcement “Danger: to arms!” – in addition to the Algerian Revolution, the Palestinian First Intifada, and the Zapatistas’ rebellion against the Mexican State – the “war against oblivion,” which began in 1994. Clearly this list is partial and uncomprehensive, but it does include many of the more seminal and progressive events seen in modernity, ones that show the resort to catastrophic politics is far different than indelible failure. Indeed, many of these affirming episodes of recent human history have been entirely insurrectional; hence they show Lilley’s analysis of this tendency to be very incomplete as well as highly misleading.

Furthermore, I believe the charge of catastrophism that permeates Lilley and company’s volume to be analytically questionable. As mentioned above, Lilley defines a catastrophist as one who “presumes society is headed for a collapse,” and then adds that catastrophists often welcome the prospect of such an eventuality. The rest of the book largely conflates these two aspects of catastrophism, rather unfairly. There is little differentiation made between the “belief” that what G.W.F. Hegel might call the “world-course” presently tends toward collapse and the positive view one could take of this possibility, while clearly this separation should – and does – exist! Rationally to understand the profundity of the environmental crisis being prosecuted by capitalism – the “colossal ecological crises” and “justifiable fears of ecological collapse” Lilley herself acknowledges – is in no way necessarily to welcome such an eventuality.

The problem here is not with a postmodern denial of objective reality (say, of biology, physics, and chemistry), for indeed, the very first paragraph of the introduction to Catastrophism mentions “the urgent and warranted need, following Walter Benjamin, to sever the lit fuse before the spark ignites the dynamite.” A fairer assessment of the intersection between politics and the catastrophic, in my view, would integrate the rather self-evident point that a mere adoption of apocalyptic rhetoric does not by itself activate mass-revolutionary movements that would presumably address the forces contributing to destruction, yet not altogether discard a resort to recognizing the urgency of the present predicament, particularly in environmental terms.

The alternative would seem to be to engage in some sort of mass-delusional Noble Lie, a strategy that self-evidently is permeated with authoritarianism, for to hold that people in general cannot face reality and therefore should not is greatly elitist, beyond being mistaken in its pessimism regarding the supposed relationship between the contemplation of decline and the chance for radical intervention – which is not to accuse Lilley and her colleagues of promoting such views. It is instead to ask what exactly Lilley and the rest are proposing, for the text is cagey and contradictory on this question.

Relatedly, it should also be stated that Lilley’s putatively innovative analysis of her “dyad” of left-wing catastrophism is not terribly revelatory. I greatly doubt that many people hold either the determinist notion that capitalism’s days are numbered or the voluntarist idea that a descent into more barbaric social conditions necessarily bodes well for the chance for social revolution to be rational appraisals of the present situation, which would then require demystification. Lilley mentions Adorno in her closing remarks to the essay on left-wing catastrophism, noting that he warned against views which undialectically hold that capitalist brutality can be displaced only by external forces like the catastrophic collapse some of her opponents would seem to hope for (primitivism); she should also know, far more centrally, that Adorno and many others associated with the Frankfurt School clearly demonstrated the poverty of both determinist and voluntarist orientations several decades ago, with special focus on the latter.

Their major conclusion – unmentioned explicitly by Lilley and her colleagues, though integrated in a way into Yuen’s cultural analysis of US society – was to invert the voluntarist thesis and hold out the “catastrophist” view that capitalism could very well simply result in an ever-worsening barbarism, and that the radical hope Marxism saw in the proletariat was far from obvious and justified. Clearly, such considerations are germane to our own time; again I state that the volume would likely have been more interesting and useful, had it examined this “third option” within left-wing catastrophism.

However, were Lilley and the others centrally to have explored Benjamin and Adorno, among other “critical catastrophists,” they likely would have had to revise their broad conclusions, given that this alternative could be said to represent a “‘good’ catastrophism” which undermines their undialectical condemnation of approaches that warn of impending destruction, as Jehan Alonzo rightly observes in his review of the volume.5

In closing, I return to Yuen’s essay. It is very far from clear that the principles he offers in his conclusion for global Northerners radically to address climate change can serve practically toward that end. If the reason to act on climate catastrophe is little more than the goal of transcending alienation and overcoming exploitation, why is the struggle any different than it was a century ago, or even during Marx’s own lifetime? The question of catastrophic climate change is principally one of imperial social relations, ones from which Northern residents benefit, to the extreme detriment of the world’s social majorities. If the matter is one of improving oneself and one’s in-group, rather than assisting highly vulnerable others, there is a serious risk here of losing sight of the very solidarity that Yuen notes as crucial to our times, together with the absolute imperative of working actively and tirelessly to precipitate the destruction of the capitalist system so as to avert overwhelming destruction. Toward this end, we need not accept the neoliberal calls for austerity Yuen criticizes nor the general implied critique he suggests as regards the question of overconsumption/overproduction in the global North (would a jettisoning of the private automobile, meat-based diets and air travel be “austere?”). The examples set by indigenous peoples across the globe show clearly that living with fewer material goods hardly means a necessary reduction in one’s well-being; many such groupings are based instead on the very concept of sumak kawsay, buen vivir, or “good living” – granted, as far as such considerations may be from mainstream US society. Faced with the enormity of capital-induced planetary destruction, Ted Trainer’s invocation of “the simple way” seems to be rational, one that we should not dismiss as we struggle very uncertainly to try to topple the system which threatens absolute darkness.6


For a more considered treatment of the December 2008 events, consider We Are an Image from the Future, eds. Tasos Sagris, A.G. Schwarz, and Void Network (Oakland: AK Press, 2010) as a whole.

See for example the website Climate & Capitalism; the Capitalism, Nature, Socialism journal; Monthly Review; or Ecosocialist Horizons

“Anything that we can call morality today merges into the question of the organization of the world.” Theodor W. Adorno, Problems of Moral Philosophy, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001 [1963]), 76.

Suzanne Goldenberg, “Extreme weather more persuasive on climate change than scientists,” The Guardian, 14.

Jehan Alonzo, “review: lilley et al. on catastrophism,” 14 November 2012.

Ted Trainer, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, 2007).

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