Thursday, 8 September 2016

The Anthropocene as Utopian promise?

J. J. Grandville, Juggler of the Universe
Lately, its not hard to come across studies criticizing the concept of the "Anthropocene" in favour of that of the "Capitalocene". The basic argument is that the former is ideological since it masks the fact that it's not humanity in the abstract, but capitalism that bears the responsibility for the unfolding ecological catastrophe (see e.g. Malm 2016; Moore 2015:77; cf. Malm & Hornborg 2014).

Yesterday I came across an article by Daniel Cunha - "The Anthropocene as Fetishism" - which offers an alternative way to criticize this problematic concept. While the argument that the concept of the Anthropocene is ideological is present in the article, I think that its most interesting and original contribution lies elsewhere. Rather than simply denouncing the concept, it shows how the horror it inspires can be understood as an effect of capitalism. 

If the arrival of the Anthropocene means that humanity is now in charge, then why are we terrified of it? Why does it seem, to so many of us, to spell doom rather than liberation? The obvious answer, as Cunha points out, is alienation. We're terrified of ourselves. Under capitalism, humanity confronts itself as a deadly force threatening all life with extinction, as a terrifying "second nature" that cannot be controlled. "That Man is presented as a blind geologic force, such as volcanic eruptions or variations in solar radiation, is an expression of the naturalized or fetishized form of social relations that is prevalent in capitalism" (Cunha 2015: 68).

However, Cunha reminds us that the notion of the Anthropocene also contains a Utopian kernel of truth, an "unfulfilled promise" - namely that of a liberated humanity able to reshape its world through an interplay with nature (ibid. 65). This is certainly a startling claim and it's a safe guess that many environmentalists will find it provocative. Yet the history of Utopian thought does lend support to Cunha's claim. We only need to turn to Charles Fourier to bring a particularly unblemished version of this Utopian vision of the Anthropocene into focus. Here it's important not to get put off by Fourier's seeming craziness - by his bizarre visions of copulating planets, lemonade seas and a mutated humanity illuminated by two suns and four moons. Often it's precisely in the most outrageous and hallucinatory visions that Utopian longings shine forth most clearly.

Walter Benjamin too was charmed by this vision and found traces of a similar Utopian intermingling of technology and nature in Leonardo da Vinci and early Mickey Mouse movies. By way of illustration, let me quote a well-known passage from "To the Planetarium" (written 1923-26) - a passage in which it isn't hard to hear echoes of Fourier:
It is the dangerous error of modern men to regard this experience [ecstatic contact with the cosmos] as unimportant and avoidable, and to consign it to the individual as the poetic rapture of starry nights. It is not; its hour strikes again and again, and then neither nations nor generations can escape it, as was made terribly clear by the last war, which was an attempt at new and unprecedented commingling with the cosmic powers. Human multitudes, gases, electrical forces were hurled into the open country, high-frequency currents coursed through the landscape, new constellations rose in the sky, aerial space and ocean depths thundered with propellers, and everywhere sacrificial shafts were dug in Mother Earth. This immense wooing of the cosmos was enacted for the first time on a planetary scale – that is, in the spirit of technology. But because lust for profit of the ruling class sought satisfaction through it, technology betrayed man and turned the bridal bed into a bloodbath. The mastery of nature, so the imperialists teach, is the purpose of all technology. But who would trust a cane wielder who proclaimed the mastery of children by adults to be the purpose of education? Is not education, above all, the indispensable ordering of the relationship between generations and therefore mastery, if we are to use this term, of that relationship and not of children? And likewise technology is the mastery of not nature but of the relation between nature and man. Men as a species completed their development thousands of years ago; but mankind as a species is just beginning his. [...] The paroxysm of genuine cosmic experience is not tied to that tiny fragment of nature that we are accustomed to call "Nature”. In the nights of annihilation of the last war, the frame of mankind was shaken by a feeling that resembled the bliss of the epileptic. And the revolts that followed it were the first attempt of mankind to bring the new body under its control. The power of the proletariat is the measure of its convalescence. If it is not gripped to the very marrow by the discipline of this power, no pacifist polemics will save it. Living substance conquers the frenzy of destruction only in the ecstasy of procreation. (Benjamin 1997: 103f)
In pointing to the Utopian side of this "wooing of cosmos", it shouldn't be forgotten that it appears Utopian today only because it is antithetical to the real, capitalist society that blocks its realization. Neither Benjamin nor Cunha are apologists of that society or of the "Anthropocene" in its capitalist version - a version that denies the human capacity to act by presenting social processes as natural and that exploits real nature for no purpose other than capital accumulation. As Cunha suggests, it is precisely in order to fight capitalism that it is important to keep this "unfulfilled" Utopian promise of the Anthropocene in mind:
And yet what emerges here is a truly utopian perspective, the promise of the realization of the Anthropocene, not as an anthropological constant or a “natural” force, but as a fully historical species-being that consciously controls and gives form to the material conditions of the planet. If, as put by the young Marx, alienated labor alienates Man’s species-being, the liberatory reorganization of social-material interchange would unleash the species potential that is embedded, though socially negated, in the “Anthropocene.” Geoengineering and advanced technology in general freed from value-form and instrumental reason could be used not only to solve the climate problem, but also, as Adorno wrote, to “help nature to open its eyes,” to help it “on the poor earth to become what perhaps it would like to be.” Advanced forces of production imply that Fourier’s poetic utopian vision recalled by Walter Benjamin could be materialized.
cooperative labor would increase efficiency to such an extent that four moons would illuminate the sky at night, the polar ice caps would recede, seawater would no longer taste salty, and beasts of prey would do man’s bidding. All this illustrates a kind of labor which, far from exploiting nature, would help her give birth to the creations that lie dormant in her womb. [quote from Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History", No. XI]
Even the elimination of brutality in nature (predation) and the abolition of slaughterhouses through the production of synthetic meat nowadays seem within theoretical reach with “genetic reprogramming” and stem-cell technology. That goes beyond the wildest Marcusean utopian dreams. Of course, this requires a social struggle that subverts the production determined by the valorization of value and frees, first of all, human potential. On the other hand, with business as usual, we are likely to see our material future on Earth being determined by the interest rate, emergency geoengineering, and chance. (Cunha 2015: 74)
There's no denying that some of the assertions in this passage are disturbing. The affirmation of geoengineering and genetic reprogramming is likely to make the hair stand on end on most environmentalists, even if these things are "freed from value-form and instrumental reason".

At the same time, environmentalists could also find things to praise in the passage. It goes beyond the rigid dualism between nature and society that has often been an impediment and stumbling block in environmental struggles. It opens up for a red-green alliance by suggesting that the goal of such struggles could be a liberated nature for a liberated humanity, rather than a wilderness leaving no room for human beings.

To borrow Benjamin's formulation, nothing says that a Utopian take on the Anthropocene would have to imply human "mastery over nature". A humanity that "consciously controls and gives form to the material conditions of the planet" wouldn't have to realize the extravagant visions of Fourier or present-day geoengineers. Liberated from the spell of the value-law and the need for constant expansion, humanity would no longer be compelled to ravage nature at all, but might chose to limits its powers or to use them to preserve biodiversity and natural habitats. Asked what emancipation would mean, Adorno rejects the answer that it would enable a free and unhampered satisfaction of the ego, whose desires are in any case all too often implanted by the very capitalism from which it is supposed to seek liberation. In what sounds like an oblique riposte to Benjamin's embrace of Fourier, he suggests that emanicpation might well imply limitation and passivity, rather than process and action:

Perhaps the true society will grow tired of development and, out of freedom, leave possibilities unused, instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the conquest of strange stars. A mankind which no longer knows want will begin to have an inkling of the delusory, futile nature of all the arrangements hitherto made in order to escape want, which used wealth to reproduce want on a larger scale. (Adorno 1987:156f)

"Rien faire comme une bête, lying on water and looking peacefully at the sky", he adds, might well replace process and action as an image of emancipation (ibid 157). Emancipation, then, doesn't mean the satisfaction of desires, but the ability to come to one's senses and reflect on whether one's desires are really worthwhile or not. Surely it's this ability to choose that Benjamin aims for when he writes that the technology of a post-capitalist future wouldn't aim for mastery over nature, but rather for mastery over the relation to nature.

However, putting aside the question of how to evaluate these assertions, it's interesting to observe how Cunha builds up his argument. It's dialectical, much like what we see in thinkers like Adorno, Benjamin or Marcuse. It points out, on the one hand, that we're dealing with ideology. But on the other, it also points to a Utopian kernel in the concept that we can discover by immanent criticism and use to attack the ideology. Cunha's article shows, I think, how the dialectical approach typical of early critical theory can make an interesting contribution today next to other Marxist currents that in various ways are also trying to make Marx fruitful for the understanding of environmental problems - currents like Eco-Marxism or the "production of nature"-approach. The article's affinity to early critical theory is shown both in the way critique procedes immanently and in the steadfastness with which it holds onto an unabashed, provocative Utopianism that is lacking or more subdued in the other Marxist currents.

J. J. Grandville, Un autre monde (1844)


Adorno, T. W. (1987) Minima Moralia, London: Verso.

Benjamin, Walter (1997) “One-Way Street”, pp. 45-106, in One-Way Street, London: Verso.

Cunha, Daniel (2015) “The Anthropocene as Fetishism”, Mediations 28(2): 65-77.

Malm, Andreas (2016) Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, London: Verso.

Malm, Andreas & Hornborg, Alf (2014) "The Geology of Mankind? A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative", The Anthropocene Review 1(1): 62-69.

Moore, Jason (2015) Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, London: Verso.


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