I just finished Leigh Phillip’s left defense of humanity, “Austerity Ecology And The Collapse-Porn Addicts.” I think it’s important to frame it that way, as one of the main point he makes (and I fully agree) is that the earth doesn’t need us to survive. What we should focus on is our species. And not just surviving, but prospering, even conquering (I know people don’t like that word, but we ought not be scared of power). Phillips goes through every argument that I grew up with, from green austerity to that overpopulation nonsense, and convincingly does away with them. (I read Derrick Jensen was I was younger and had completely spaced out how truly terrible his arguments are. Embarrassingly bad. When I tried John Bellamy Foster I luckily found him too dense to get through. Just like George Ciccariello-Maher is a caricature of your “edgy” left wing professor, Foster is a caricature of what a Marxist is, tough to understand but you should know what he’s saying is super important!)
Phillip’s defense of economic growth needs to be understood on the left. It’s exaggerated by the activist class, but there’s this really annoying current of moral righteousness that plays far too great a role in defining what the left is to the general public. Instead of focusing on issues that have broad public support, like economic growth distributed rationally, this influential contingent of the left sets the conversation in a way that makes them the parental figure scolding the public who doesn’t understand what’s good for them. Yes you fester in political obscurity, but you get the moral satisfaction on knowing you’re “right.” Trying to build a political movement on people willfully lowering their standard of living, for example, because we have to “save the planet” has got to have the right laughing all the way to the ballot box.
My favorite part was towards the end of the book when Phillips went after the politically self-defeating fetishization of small. On an individual level there are plenty of things I like about a localized, more isolated existence. I grew up in the country in one of the most rural parts of the United States and enjoy going back. But the political implications of that sort of lifestyle are pretty much exactly the opposite of what people think. Far from self-sustaining, these rural communities are reliant on urban areas for much of their standard of living. This is acknowledged through the inferiority complex that runs thick throughout rural life, but few politicians are brave enough to make the point and even fewer question the over-representation rural areas have, built into our political process.
There is much more (technology!) to discuss, but the book does a far better job than I in describing it all, so I won’t bother. One thing I did want to mention before I’m done, and the book takes this on a bit, is how utterly unconvincing post-modernism is as an explanation and critique of the post-war world. A generation (or two) of leftists have been completely bogged down by this pessimistic view of humanity and it has done a great deal to push the left into political irrelevance. Now, mixed with a sort of hyper identity politics, the right has taken to calling it “cultural Marxism.” While the right sees any critique of a society long infected by racism, sexism, etc., as evidence of the great power of “cultural Marxism,” in reality much of the materialist demands of anti-oppression movements have been ignored and forgotten while the idealist ones have been enhanced. The ruling class isn’t threatened in the slightest by “cultural Marxism,” but when you stop talking about hearts and minds and start talking about a redistribution of wealth the foundation grants often stop coming.
Over the years I’ve grown more or less in line with Phillip’s arguments and I knew that before I read the book, so I’m not surprised I enjoyed it. The main point- we need to take control of the machine, not turn it off- is the fundamental definition of what it means to be on the left. Moreover, the only way we could possibly gain control of the machine is to convince the people that it should work for all of us, not that it needs to be turned off. We have to get back to that if we want to have any sort of relevance in the 21st century.