Monthly Archives: May 2010
A basic assumption of a pacifist radical philosophy is that violence and warfare are not limited to the actions of established militaries and their enemies. Violence and warfare are pervasive in our world, from our workplaces to our living rooms to our houses of worship. Every systemic injustice in our world is an injustice in significant measure because every injustice is also a form of violence.
The exploitation of capitalism is a form of violence. The power of political domination relies on threatened violence. Male domination has its only justification in the perceived superior physical ability of men to commit violence. Overcoming systemic domination, oppression, repression, and exploitation within our world relies on overcoming the violence that is a fundamental aspect of these systems.
Pacifist radicalism goes beyond nonviolence as a personal ethic, though it is not opposed to such an ethic. Pacifist radicalism is a strategic philosophy of nonviolent revolution. A nonviolent revolution promises the most complete success of any alternative form of revolution, in that it does not rely on the inherently violent bases of the systemic injustices against which we are all struggling.
In contrast to an armed revolution, the nonviolent revolution does not require the wealth to acquire weaponry, as each person already possesses the necessary tools. Armed revolutions require extraordinary skillsets in constructing, deploying, and engaging the conflict. A nonviolent revolutionary strategy does require a cooperative, educational, and disciplined movement to succeed. Such requirements are in fact themselves the basis of the very justice, freedom, equality, and wholeness that is sought by the revolution.
The nonviolent revolution builds into its very fabric the institutional seeds of the new order. By rejecting any method that relies on domination, exploitation, and violence, a new social reality is already embryonically present within the revolutionary nonviolent organization. The ends being sought on a global scale are already present in the means adopted by the movement.
It has been objected that pacifist radicalism assumes saintliness. It is argued that people are naturally aggressive, or that our already violent society makes nonviolence unrealistic. Dr. King and Gandhi were quite explicit that the power of nonviolence did not rely on eliminating every vestige of aggression. In fact, nonviolent tactics give one a new and constructive focus for one’s aggressive tendencies.
Dr. King stated that the choice that faces us is not violence vs. nonviolence, but rather nonviolence or nonexistence. In a world of weapons of mass destruction, only a mass movement of constructive opposition to injustice can begin the difficult task of overcoming the self-destructive course of humanity. We are not merely struggling to end warfare in a narrow sense, but to realize a global reality of peace and justice.
“The great contribution of ecology has been, and still is, to make us conscious of the dangers threatening the planet as a result of the present mode of production and consumption. The exponential growth of attacks on the environment and the increasing threat of the breakdown of the ecological balance constitute a catastrophic scenario that calls into question the survival of the human species. We are facing a crisis of civilization that demands radical change.”
What is EcoSocialism? by Michael Löwy
As a child in the 1970s, I remember the early sense of crisis that accompanied the environmental movement. Earth Day 1970 was heralded as the beginning of a new movement that would save this world from seeming impending destruction. Now, nearly 40 years later, it may be useful to examine where the movement has come and what it might do over the next period.
In many ways, the intervening decades have not been a success for the movement. We now consume more petroleum and pump more gasoline exhaust into the atmosphere than ever before. We now use unleaded fuels mostly, which was an early victory, but as has been widely noted, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is nearing levels that are predicted to have serious adverse effects, such as acidification of the oceans and continued climate warming.
However, as documented by Paul Hawken’s 2007 book, Blessed Unrest, the environmental movement has spawned as many a million organizations large and small, from non-profit think-tanks to local campaigns to various entrepreneurial ventures. Although this disparate protean mass of organizations have no centralized leadership and often diverse visions, the ones Hawken identifies are all committed to some aspect of our global environmental crises. If Hawken is right, and my experience confirms he’s mostly right, then there is a movement out there that is dwarfing most of the other social movements in history.
I want to list the key challenges of this movement as I understand them. They are climate change, ecosystem degradation, habitat destruction, species endangerment, and over-population.
1) Climate change
Scientists have been predicting and documenting a marked rise in global temperatures for the past 90+ years. This rise has led to the warmest years on record since as far back as 900 A.D, which is as far as solid data takes us, but other tentative research suggest that the present rise is greater than any since the end of the last Ice Age. The onset of the rise has correlated very precisely with the rise of fossil fuel consumption and emissions. Scientists predict as much as a 6 degree rise in global average temperature by 2100, and even greater increases beyond that date.
A central goal of the environmental movement is the replacement of fossil fuels with alternatives of wind, solar, and other non-polluting sources. A corollary goal is scaling back heavy industry and combustion engine usages. It is hoped these changes will offset and potentially reverse global warming.
2) Ecosystem degradation
A parallel result of the rise of fossil fuel consumption and emissions has been the pollution and destruction of ecosystems by the waste products of industrial production. Chemicals are added to the water systems, land is rendered infertile, and air quality is compromised.
3) Habitat destruction
Not only are ecosystems degraded by the by-products of industrial production, but habitats are destroyed deliberately in the search for resources and profits. The most infamous example is the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, the largest of the old-growth forests on the planet. Over a million square kilometers of the natural rainforest has been destroyed in the past century, representing about 18% of the total forest.
4) Species endangerment
Habitat destruction is the main driver behind the rise in entire species becoming threatened or extinct. Nearly 40% of all organisms on the planet are at risk. While conservation laws protect many species, many, many more go unprotected.
5) Human over-population
While we want to avoid Malthusian pessimism about increasing numbers of humans, there is a challenge to be grasped. Depending on a variety of factors, human population is expected to reach numbers as high as 9-11 billion people by 2050. This growth places stress on all the above concerns as well as distinct challenges such as food and water shortages, rampant poverty, and health risks.
Taken as a whole the problems are immense and there are few easy answers. Modern industrial capitalism has given humanity a new world, but it has also created many dangerous challenges. Resolving these problems are critical to the future of humanity.
“Man’s sexual organization and his social organization are so deeply interconnected that we cannot say which came first, but can only assume a simultaneous evolution (whether sudden or gradual) of both.” Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death, p. 24.
As a social radical committed to abolishing war and poverty, it took a while for me to grasp the importance of the interconnection between social and sexual organization. How war and poverty may be connected to the seemingly tangential realities of sexuality aren’t clear. In fact, the apparently tangential relation of sexuality to violence may be the greatest sign that they are in fact profoundly connected.
After all, what is the theory of repression except the theory that we deny the true character of our deepest needs? We can understand quite easily why poverty and warfare are a threat to our very survival. It is harder to understand why repression and sexual frustration are also survival threats.
Sex is seen as an entertainment, a luxury, and a private matter. It is also never far from shame and disgust. Even when its centrality to our social organization is acknowledged, that centrality is often reduced to reproduction, with intercourse being the vehicle of conception, and of little importance beyond that.
It may help if we ask, what exactly is sex? Is it more than intercourse? To answer these questions, I find it helpful to begin with some Freudian ideas, though I acknowledge his controversial character.
Freud holds that our sexual drive – eros or libido – is in fact an integral part of our drive to live and survive. The desire for physical pleasure is part of our fundamental bodily life from birth. An infant does not know that sucking a breast gives them nutrition, they only know that the breast and its milk are pleasurable.
Children who do not receive breast-feeding are not necessarily sexually deprived, but taking in sweet warm fluid from the warm fleshy breast through the mouth is an intensely pleasurable act that sets the stage for later desires. “The sexual aim of the infantile impulse consists in the production of gratification through the proper excitation of this or that selected erogenous zone.” Freud, Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex
Norman O. Brown remarks how at the stage of breast-feeding our desire for survival and for pleasure are united. A suckling infant isn’t denying its desire for pleasure in order to seek out nutrition, as adults are compelled to do. This stage of “privileged irresponsibility permits and promotes an early blossoming of the desires of the human being….” Life Against Death, p. 25.
Of course, the idyllic fusion of mother and infant isn’t really idyllic. An infant is in fact capable of intense emotion, even sheer rage when it desires something it can’t seem to acquire. The infantile brain is filled with images and sounds it can’t make sense of and begins to imagine, usually quite fantastically, just what this world is truly like.
The world of the infant is both its experience of satisfaction and of deprivation, of comfort and caring and of lack and absence. This duality is posed by Freudians as the source and ground of two distinct projections and motivations, the life drive and the death drive. While in some real sense truly one fundamental drive to survive and connect with the world, the positive drive and its negative counterpart often become disintegrated and in conflict.
In many of us, especially men, the death drive emerges into an aggressive motivation to control and dominate others or our surroundings. We subordinate our desire to connect and feel affection to the desire to feel safe and in control. The connection between sexuality and violence becomes a bit more clear.
What Freud seemed to not grasp is that all this ambivalence of the human emotions is most directly aimed for most of us at our mothers, much more than at our fathers. The modern family shares with most traditional families the near total subjection of early childcare to women, whether biological mother or other females.
This means that the first being we learn to love and, most importantly, to hate is a woman. According to Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur, mother-centric childcare “gives us boys who will grow reliably into childish men, unsure of their grasp on life’s primitive realities. And it gives us girls who will grow reliably into childish women, unsure of their right to full worldly adult status.”
In essence, the gender imbalance in our infantile experience leads men and women to a lifelong emotional immaturity. We split the world up into male and female domains, with the female domains being zones of love and tenderness and male zones being dominated by competition, aggression, and violence. A stereotyped polarity between loving women and heartless men structures every human interaction.
Since the 1960s, movements for sexual liberation have sought to overcome the repressive conditions of previous history. The availability of birth control freed teenagers from fears of pregnancy and led to the abandonment of pre-marital virginity by most. Experiments with group marriage, swinging, and nudism were tried, and in most cases have even more practitioners today than in their public heyday. Despite its origins on the left, much of sexual liberation gains were mainstreamed by capitalism into sexualized media, including pornography.
Beyond the heterosexual majority, gay, lesbian, and bisexual versions of sexual liberation took on strength. In addition to the desire to overthrow outdated sexual rules, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and eventually transgender movements also took on wider concerns about social equality and discrimination. Heterosexuality could no longer be assumed as normative, no longer were lbgt persons silent targets of sexual bigotry.
In essence the connection between sexual and social liberation revolves around the core values of freedom and love. We are seekers of love, even when life has warped our souls. Socially radical sexual liberation is the demand for nothing less than the emancipation of love itself.
If one studies statistics of world poverty and takes account of racial identity, the obvious conclusion is that most of the world’s poor are non-Caucasian and most of the world’s rich are Caucasian. Europe and North America control the vast majority of the world’s wealth, while Africa, Latin America, and Asia control tiny fractions of wealth. The main exception is China, but compared to the Euro-American bloc, China is still far down the list of wealthy countries.
Africa is still the poorest continent on Earth, and this is certainly not an accident. The twin projects of the slave trade and colonialism were aimed at making this continent subordinate to Euro-American global domination. Despite decades of decolonization and independence for many African nations, this continent still suffers the most from global inequality.
Cornel West rightly challenges the view that we can reduce race to economic or class issues. He maintains that racist social practices “are best understood and explained not only or primarily by locating them within modes of production, but also by situating them within the cultural traditions of civilizations.” (“Race and Social Theory” from Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America, 1993.) He identifies three modes of cultural racism: Judeo-Christian, Scientific-rational, and psychosexual.
From Judeo-Christian culture, a racist discourse arose that is focused on blackness as synonymous with chaos and paganism. From scientific-rational culture, an intellectual elitism that disdains subjectivity and privileges a search for truth detached from the struggles of both everyday life and political power. The psychosexual aversion to non-white persons is a complex subconscious disposition of neurotic fears that blacks are both dirty, disgusting, and rapacious sexual predators.
The cultural discourses of racism have operated through Anglo-European history in its rise to global supremacy and have come to fundamentally shape its institutions. Our economics, education, and politics are shot through with a cohesive repressive, dominative, and exploitative consciousness and praxis. While this reality has been challenged both by people of color and their caucasian allies, the mountain of racism has proven itself indomitable thus far.
The struggle continues, but with a reasonable hope. The Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the U.S. 1960s were instrumental and opening a space in Caucasian society for greater freedom for people of color. Racism is fundamentally at odds with the authentic potential of human freedom and equality.