[OPE] Graeber, "Against Kamikaze Capitalism"

From: Jerry Levy <jerry_levy@verizon.net>
Date: Sat Dec 11 2010 - 08:33:14 EST

Against Kamikaze Capitalism: Oil, Climate Change and the French refinery blockades»

> > Against Kamikaze Capitalism: Oil, Climate Change and the French
> > refinery blockades
> >
> > by David Graeber, published online November 2010
> >
> > On Saturday, 16th October 2010, some 500 activists gathered at
> > convergence points across London, knowing only that they were about
> > to embark on a direct action called Crude Awakening, aimed against
> > the ecological devastation of the global oil industry, but with no
> > clear idea of what they were about to do. The plan was quite a
> > clever one. Organizers had dropped hints they were intending to hit
> > targets in London itself, but instead, participants—who had been
> > told only to bring full-charged metro cards, lunch, and outdoor
> > clothing—were led in brigades to a commuter train for Essex. At one
> > stop, bags full of white chemical jumpsuits marked with skeletons
> > and dollars, gear, and lock-boxes mysteriously appeared; shortly
> > thereafter, hastily appointed spokespeople in each carriage received
> > word of the day’s real plan: to blockade the access road to the
> > giant Coryton refinery near Stanford-le-Hope – the road over which
> > 80% of all oil consumed in London flows. An affinity group of about
> > a dozen women were already locked down to vans near the refinery’s
> > gate and had turned back several tankers; we were going to make it
> > impossible for the police to overwhelm and arrest them.
> >
> > It was an ingenious feint, and brilliantly effective. Before long we
> > were streaming across fields carrying thirteen giant bamboo tripods,
> > confused metropolitan police in tow. Hastily assembled squads of
> > local cops first seemed intent on provoking a violent confrontation—
> > seizing one of our tripods, attempting to break our lines when we
> > began to set them up on the highway—but the moment it became clear
> > that we were not going to yield, and batons would have to be
> > employed, someone must have given an order to pull back. We can only
> > speculate about what mysterious algorithm the higher-ups apply in
> > such situations like that —our numbers, their numbers, the danger of
> > embarrassing publicity, the larger political climate—but the result
> > was to hand us the field; our tripods stood, a relief party backed
> > up the original lockdown; and no further tankers moved over the
> > access road—a road that on an average day carries some seven hundred
> > tankers, hauling 375,000 gallons of oil—for the next five hours.
> > Instead, the access road became a party: with music, clowns,
> > footballs, local kids on bicycles, a chorus line of Victorian zombie
> > stilt-dancers, yarn webs, chalk poems, periodic little spokescouncils
> > —mainly, to decide at exactly what point we would declare victory
> > and leave.
> >
> > It was nice to win one for a change. Facing a world where security
> > forces—from Minneapolis to Strasbourg—seem to have settled on an
> > intentional strategy of trying to ensure, as a matter of principle,
> > that no activist should ever leave the field of a major
> > confrontation with a sense of elation or accomplishment (and often,
> > that as many as possible should leave profoundly traumatized), a
> > clear tactical victory is nothing to sneeze at. But at the same
> > time, there was a certain ominous feel to the whole affair: one
> > which made the overall aesthetic, with its mad scientist frocks and
> > animated corpses, oddly appropriate.
> >
> > The Coryton blockade was inspired by a call from indigenous groups
> > in South America, tied to the Climate Justice Action network, a new
> > global network created in the lead-up to the actions in Copenhagen
> > in December 2009—for a kind of anti-Columbus day, in honor and
> > defense of the earth. Yet it was carried out in the shadow of a much-
> > anticipated announcement, on the 20th, four days later, of savage
> > Tory cuts to the tattered remains of the British welfare state, from
> > benefits to education, threatening to throw hundreds of thousands
> > into unemployment, and thousands already unemployed into destitution—
> > the largest such cuts since before the Great Depression. The great
> > question on everyone’s mind was, would there be a cataclysmic
> > reaction? Even worse, was there any possibility there might not be?
> > In France it had already begun. French Climate Camp had long been
> > planning a similar blockade at the Total refinery across the channel
> > in Le Havre; when they arrived on the 16th, they discovered the
> > refinery already occupied by its workers as part of a nationwide
> > pension dispute that had already shut down 16 of Frances 17 oil
> > refineries. The police reaction was revealing. As soon as the
> > environmental activists appeared, the police leapt into action,
> > forcing the strikers back into the refinery and establishing a
> > cordon in an effort to ensure that under no conditions should the
> > activists be able to break through and speak with the petroleum
> > workers (after hours of efforts, a few, on bicycles, did eventually
> > manage to break through.)
> >
> > “Environmental justice won’t happen without social justice,”
> > remarked one of the French Climate Campers afterwards. “Those who
> > exploit workers, threaten their rights, and those who are destroying
> > the planet, are the same people.” True enough. “We need to move
> > towards a society and energy transition and to do it cooperatively
> > with the workers of this sector. The workers that are currently
> > blockading their plants have a crucial power into their hands; every
> > litre of oil that is left in the ground thanks to them helps saving
> > human lives by preventing climate catastrophes.”
> >
> > On the surface this might seem strikingly naive. Do we really expect
> > workers in the petroleum industry to join us in a struggle to
> > eliminate the petroleum industry? To strike for their right not to
> > be petroleum workers? But in reality, it’s not naive at all. In fact
> > that’s precisely what they were striking for. They were mobilizing
> > against reforms aimed to move up their retirement age from 60 to 62—
> > that is, for their right not to have to be petroleum workers one day
> > longer than they had to.
> >
> > Unemployment is not always a bad thing. It’s something to remember
> > when we ponder how to avoid falling into the same old reactive trap
> > we always do when mobilizing around jobs and industry—and thus, find
> > ourselves attempting to save the very global work machine that’s
> > threatening to destroy the planet. There’s a reason the police were
> > so determined to prevent any conversation between environmentalists
> > and strikers. As French workers have shown us repeatedly in recent
> > years, we have allies where we might not suspect we have them.
> >
> > One of the great ironies of the twentieth century is that
> > everywhere, a politically mobilized working class—whenever they did
> > win a modicum of political power—did so under the leadership of a
> > bureaucratic class dedicating to a productivist ethos that most of
> > them did not share. Back in, say, 1880, or even 1925, the chief
> > distinction between anarchist and socialist unions was that the
> > latter were always demanding higher wages, the former, less hours of
> > work. The socialist leadership embraced the ideal of infinite growth
> > and consumer utopia offered by their bourgeois enemies; they simply
> > wished “the workers” to manage it themselves; anarchists, in
> > contrast, wanted time in which to live, to pursue forms of value
> > capitalists could not even dream of. Yet where did anti-capitalist
> > revolutions happen? As we all know from the great Marx-Bakunin
> > controversy, it was the anarchist constituencies that actually rose
> > up: whether in Spain, Russia, China, Nicaragua, or Mozambique. Yet
> > every time they did so, they ended up under the administration of
> > socialist bureaucrats who embraced that ethos of productivism, that
> > utopia of over-burdened shelves and consumer plenty, even though
> > this was the last thing they would ever have been able to provide.
> > The irony became that the social benefits the Soviet Union and
> > similar regimes actually were able to provide—more time, since work
> > discipline becomes a completely different thing when one effectively
> > cannot be fired from one’s job—were precisely the ones they couldn’t
> > acknowledge; it has to be referred to as “the problem of
> > absenteeism”, standing in the way of an impossible future full of
> > shoes and consumer electronics. But if you think about it, even
> > here, it’s not entirely different. Trade unionists feel obliged to
> > adopt bourgeois terms—in which productivity and labor discipline are
> > absolute values—and act as if the freedom to lounge about on a
> > construction sites is not a hard-won right but actually a problem.
> > Granted, it would be much better to simply work four hours a day
> > than do four hours worth of work in eight (and better still to
> > strive to dissolve the distinction between work and play entirely),
> > but surely this is better than nothing. The world needs less work.
> >
> > All this is not to say that there are not plenty of working class
> > people who are justly proud of what they make and do, just that it
> > is the perversity of capitalism (state capitalism included) that
> > this very desire is used against us, and we know it. As a result,
> > the great paradox of working class life is that while working class
> > people and working class sensibilities are responsible for almost
> > everything of redeeming value in modern life—from shish kebab to
> > rock’n’roll to public libraries (and honestly, do the
> > administrative, “middle” classes ever really create anything?) they
> > are creative precisely when they are not working—that is, in that
> > domain of which cultural theorists so obnoxiously refer to as
> > “consumption.” Which of course makes it possible for the
> > administrative classes (amongst whom I count capitalists) to
> > simultaneously dismiss their creativity, steal it, and sell it back
> > to them.
> >
> > The question is how to break the assumption that engaging in hard
> > work—and by extension, dutifully obeying orders—is somehow an
> > intrinsically moral enterprise. This is an idea that, admittedly,
> > has even affected large sections of the working class. For anyone
> > truly interested in human liberation, this is the most pernicious
> > question. In public debate, one of the few things everyone seems to
> > have to agree with is that only those willing to work—or even more,
> > only those willing to submit themselves to well-nigh insane degrees
> > of labor discipline—could possibly be morally deserving of anything—
> > that not just work, work of the sort considered valuable by
> > financial markets—is the only legitimate moral justification for
> > rewards of any sort. This is not an economic argument. It’s a moral
> > one. It’s pretty obvious that there are many circumstances where,
> > even from the economists’ perspective, too much work and too much
> > labor discipline is entirely counterproductive. Yet every time there
> > is a crisis, the answer on all sides is always the same: people need
> > to work more! There’s someone out there working less than they could
> > be—handicapped people who are not quite as handicapped as they’re
> > making themselves out to be, French oil workers who get to retire
> > before their souls and bodies are entirely destroyed, art students,
> > lazy porters, benefit cheats—and somehow, this must be what’s
> > ruining things for everyone.
> >
> > I might add that this moralistic obsession with work is very much in
> > keeping with the spirit of neoliberalism itself, increasingly
> > revealed, in these its latter days, as very much a moral enterprise.
> > Or I think at this point we can even be a bit more specific.
> > Neoliberalism has always been a form of capitalism that places
> > political considerations ahead of economic ones. How else can we
> > understand the fact that Neoliberals have managed to convince
> > everyone in the world that economic growth and material prosperity
> > are the only thing that mattered, even as, under its aegis real
> > global growth rates collapsed, sinking to perhaps a third of what
> > they had been under earlier, state-driven, social-welfare oriented
> > forms of development, and huge proportions of the world’s population
> > sank into poverty. Or that financial elites were the only people
> > capable of measuring the value of anything, even as it propagated an
> > economic culture so irresponsible that it allowed those elites to
> > bring the entire financial architecture of the global economy
> > tumbling on top of them because of their utter inability to assess
> > the value of anything—even their own financial instruments. Once one
> > cottons onto it, the pattern becomes unmistakable. Whenever there is
> > a choice between the political goal of undercutting social movements—
> > especially, by convincing everyone there is no viable alternative to
> > the capitalist order–and actually running a viable capitalist order,
> > neoliberalism means always choosing the first. Precarity is not
> > really an especially effective way of organizing labor. It’s a
> > stunningly effective way of demobilizing labor. Constantly
> > increasing the total amount of time people are working is not very
> > economically efficient either (even if we don’t consider the long-
> > term ecological effects); but there’s no better way to ensure people
> > are not thinking about alternative ways to organize society, or
> > fighting to bring them about, than to keep them working all the
> > time. As a result, we are left in the bizarre situation where almost
> > no one believes that capitalism is really a viable system any more,
> > but neither can they even begin to imagine a different one. The war
> > against the imagination is the only one the capitalists seem to have
> > definitively won.
> >
> > It only makes sense, then, that the first reaction to the crash of
> > 2008, which revealed the financiers so recently held up as the most
> > brilliant economic minds in history to be utterly, disastrously
> > inept at the one thing they were supposed to be best at— calculating
> > value–was not, as most activists (myself included) had predicted, a
> > rush towards Green Capitalism—that is, an economic response—but a
> > political one. This is the real meaning of the budget cuts. Any
> > competent economist knows what happens when you slash the budget in
> > the middle of downturn. It can only make things worse. Such a policy
> > only makes sense as a violent attack on anything that even looks
> > like it might possibly provide an alternative way to think about
> > value, from public welfare to the contemplation of art or philosophy
> > (or at least, the contemplation of art or philosophy for any reason
> > other than making money). For the moment, at least, most capitalists
> > are no longer even thinking about capitalism’s long-term viability.
> >
> > It is terrifying, to be sure, to understand that one is facing a
> > potentially suicidal enemy. But at least it clarifies the situation.
> > And yes, it is quite possible that in time, the capitalists will
> > pick themselves up, gather their wits, stop bickering and begin to
> > do what they always do: begin pilfering the most useful ideas from
> > the social movements ranged against them (mutual aid,
> > decentralization, sustainability) so as to turn them into something
> > exploitative and horrible. In the long term, if there is to be a
> > long term anyway, they’re pretty much going to have to. But in the
> > meantime, we really are facing a kind of kamikaze capitalism—a
> > capitalist order that will not hesitate to destroy itself if that’s
> > what it takes to destroy its enemies (us). If nothing else it does
> > help us understand what we’re fighting for: at this moment,
> > absolutely everything.
> >
> > This makes it all the more critical to figure out a way to snap the
> > productivist bargain, if we might call it that—that it is both an
> > ecological and a political imperative to bring about that meeting
> > that the police in Le Havre were so determined to prevent. There are
> > a lot of threads to be untangled here, and any number of pernicious
> > illusions that need to be exposed. I will end with only one. What is
> > the real relation between all that money that’s supposedly in such
> > short supply, necessitating the slashing of budgets and abrogation
> > of pension agreements, and the ecological devastation of our
> > petroleum-based energy system? Aside from the obvious one: that debt
> > is the main means of driving the global work machine, which requires
> > the endless escalation of energy consumption in the first place. In
> > fact, it’s quite simple. We are looking at a kind of conceptual back-
> > flip. Oil, after all, is a limited resource. There is only so much
> > of it. Money is not. A coin or bill is really nothing but an IOU, a
> > promise; the only limit to how much we can produce is how much we
> > are willing to promise one another. Yet under contemporary
> > capitalism, we act as if it’s just the opposite. Money is treated as
> > if it were oil, a limited resource, there’s only so much of it; the
> > result is to give central bankers the power to enforce economic
> > policies that demand ever more work, ever increasing production, in
> > such a way that we end up treating oil as if it were money: as an
> > unlimited resource, something that can be freely spent to power
> > economic expansion, at roughly 3-5% a year, forever. The moment we
> > come to terms with the reality, that we are not dealing with
> > absolute constraints but merely promises, we can no longer say “but
> > there just isn’t any money”—the real question is who owes what to
> > whom, what sort of promises are worth keeping, which are absolute—a
> > government’s promise to repay its creditors at a predetermined rate
> > of interest, or the promise that it’s workers can stop working at a
> > certain age, or our promise to future generations to leave them with
> > a planet capable of human habitation. Suddenly the morality seems
> > very different; and, like the French environmentalists, we discover
> > ourselves with friends we didn’t know we had.
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Received on Sat Dec 11 08:35:38 2010

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