Conclusions and Horizons

February 12, 2012

“The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.”
Nelson Mandela

“but here the heart’s pulsing contract is made
clear: a hundred years from now we will all be naked”

Breyten Breytenbach

The global majorities face a horizon of catastrophe, and will have no choice in the coming years but to meet it head on. In the meantime, many are trying to escape from the realities of our times with subjective decisions and arguments. If the global majority has no such option, history permits a significant minority of us the breathing room that is today. But make no mistake: a hundred years from now we will all be naked, in stark silhouette before the future, in our actions and our inactions.

A new world is beginning. Reform of the old one is over. COP17 put the final nails in the world-systemic coffin. Many will continue to argue for ‘realism’, and dismiss any alternative political project as impossible or ‘idealistic’. But the very material reality shows an entirely different story, especially in reference to climate change negotiations. “The history of realism,” a groundWorks report chronicles, “shows a steady regression: Kyoto was lousy; Bali was terrible; Copenhagen was disastrous; Cancun was catastrophic. Civil society followed that regression.” Indeed, civil society in Durban wrote the next chapter of itself as civilized and courteous in the face of a global genocide. Much if not most of it is without any more doubt loyal to the old order, unaware or afraid of the new one churning just under the horizon.

What is at stake now in the clash of globalizations is not really greenhouse gas emissions or the Kyoto Protocol or the Green Climate Fund or any of the acronyms that give a confusing veneer to the central program of uninterrupted capital accumulation. What is at stake is civilization itself — modes of production, ideas of human fulfillment, and fundamental assumptions about what life, human and nonhuman, is worth. The sooner we rise to this awareness and to this occasion, the better our chances of a future worth fighting for.

“Now’s the time,” as Charles Parker knew. The revolutionary moment of our lives has arrived. A few pedantic Marxologists may insist that the contradictions of capitalism have not quite reached their structural climax. But as Nelson Mandela advised, “if you wait for textbook conditions, they will never occur.” Wahu Kaara challenged us in Durban: we are in a revolutionary moment, but we are lacking revolutionaries!

In a lecture in Durban at the University of KwaZulu Natal, Pablo Solon laid down the gauntlet: We need a greenhouse gas emissions peak in 2015. To do this, we need to mobilize 500 million people globally over the next three years. That is the carrot: the potential of an uprising unprecedented in human history. The stick, however, is that the alternative to the success of this global uprising is a more or less global eco-fascism. We must remember clearly the words of Walter Benjamin; that “every fascism is the result of a failed revolution.” History is accelerating – do not mistake it as collapse! The only question remaining is how we will meet the historical challenge. What contract will our pulsing hearts make clear?

Where and who are the revolutionaries? It is an unanswered question, but we must orient our lives toward the political project that can one day answer it. Civil society will rise or fall by this challenge. In 100 years it will be naked. Already there are emperors with no clothes who have sacrificed the future for careers. Antonio Gramsci understood civil society as a system of trenches around the state and capital, which required a long-term “war of position” to struggle through. Given the urgency of climate catastrophe, what we need today is a permanent revolution of position, where civil society actors at all levels leave behind their habits of collaboration and reform, and turn their institutions into vehicles for radical transformation. They can have no better example of a leader than Tupac Amaru II, who stood up to face the colonizers and said: “There are no accomplices here but you and I. You the oppressor, and I the liberator. Both of us deserve to die.” Civil society as we know it deserves to perish, but it can go down fighting and earn its place in history, fertilizing the birth to a new era.

Will the Left deliver us? It is a complicated question. The contributions of the Left to world history must be respected, but also subjected to ruthless criticism. We must do our best to revitalize the Left, but we cannot count on it. Unfortunately when it comes to climate justice, we must heed the counsel of Clifford Odets, when he told us: “Don’t wait for Lefty! He might never come.” It is up to the Left to prove otherwise.

Reflecting on the gravity of the possible transition to come, which is nothing less than Copernican — intrinsic value must become the center gravity of human society as opposed to the accumulation of capital – we can reread the now 200-year-old, yet still cutting-edge warning of Elizabeth Oakes Smith. She outlines the wild horizon for which we set out:

“Do we understand that we aim at nothing less than an entire subversion of the existing order of society, a dissolution of the whole existing social compact? Do we see that it is not an error of today, nor of yesterday, against which we are lifting up the voice of dissent; but it is against hoary-headed error of all times; error borne onward from the first footprints of the first pair ejected from Paradise — intermingled in every aspect of civilization, down to our own times?”

Do we understand? Honestly, we cannot. It is beyond us — these are “thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls,” as Hamlet recognized when he questioned fate and fortune. But we must rise to the world-historic challenge: locally and globally, there is no other option open to us. The resolution of the current crisis requires that we confront our entire history, even while in motion toward the horizon.

On this horizon, the test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning. This will not be the vague freedom of exchange and speech promised but never quite delivered by liberal capitalism, but another kind of freedom entirely. It will be an unruly freedom; unexplored, unmapped, and fraught with unprecedented danger. “Freedom,” wrote Breytenbach, “is the minotaur outside the walls.”

The walls of law and order, custom and culture, history and spirit, are falling down. Soon we will have to confront what is outside, and for this we must prepare! This is our common horizon, one which encompasses our previous struggles, but on which a new political project is emerging. We’ll see you there!

COP 17 South AfricaThis post is part of a series. A delegation from Ecosocialist Horizons is in Durban, South Africa, bringing you reports from the United Nations conference on climate change, known as COP 17.