I grew up hating the idea of war. So much unnecessary suffering. So much pointless death and destruction. I still hate it. But my understanding of it has fundamentally altered and it no longer means the same thing to me as it once did.
I grew up during the last two decades of the 20th Century in a household that believed – or wanted to believe – that humanity had escaped from the worst excesses of 20th century violence and destruction. The near constant backdrop of relatively lower intensity conflicts around the wold, only gave the impression that we were just dealing with the remnants of an earlier mess: a few rogue states or whatever that hadn’t embraced the modern imperative for progress in the form of liberal democracy. When I studied colonialism, slavery and racism in history classes at school (which apparently is not the norm), I of course felt outraged at these injustices, but I was also left with the impression that these were somehow history; of the past not the present.
In my teens, the world started to reveal its cracks and inconsistencies in ways that could not be unseen. Music was one of my most important educators. For example, I discovered class war, neo-colonialism and the anti-globalisation movement through punk rock band Propagandhi. I learned about systemic violence, police corruption, and racism through the legendary Rage Against The Machine. War was no longer simply about battlefields, televised images of tanks and helicopters. It was about the daily lives of all kinds of people struggling for survival against historical forces that continued to oppress them, that judged the worth of lives and orchestrated the manner, timing and distribution of their suffering and deaths.
By the time I finished my undergraduate studies, I had a more sophisticated grasp of the history of the 20th Century and a wider range of theoretical points of reference. Everything seemed more complex, but the basic story hadn’t changed a great deal. 9/11 and the war on Iraq transformed the global landscape, but as much as they constituted a rupture, they also displayed remarkable continuity, further cementing a certain ideological and geopolitical formation that was more or less a more advanced version of what had come before. The military industrial complex, capitalist modes of production and neo-imperialism were busy doing what they had, more or less, been doing all along. While my aim had been to study a degree that would prepare me to find solutions to the world’s looming economic and environmental crises, that we were careening irreversibly toward a profound ecological crisis had taken on the form of a fairly stable fact. Was I destined then to a career of rearranging deck chairs on the proverbial titanic?
This schism placed me perpetually at odds with family and friends. Like some warped visionary of doom, the crisis, to me, seemed to be happening now, unfolding in our daily complacency and refusal to break out of the paths that our mostly privileged lives offered us. And everything was interconnected. The relentless and intensifying ravaging of the earth in pursuit of growth was undermining planetary survival systems. The wretched of the earth, the dispossessed, were collateral damage, at best expendable raw materials in the growth trajectory, which no longer even had as an identifiable aim the maximisation of public welfare or well-being. Wars manifested as intensified forms of the same fundamental logic of extraction and appropriation of expendable strategic resources, not some exceptional and remote tragedy.
We find ourselves here in the second decade of the 21st Century in the midst of ecological and economic collapse. Relics of the 20th Century – nationalism, racism and fascism for example – are experiencing an unprecedented resurgence: clearly they had never been buried. Economic crisis is setting in, economies – and the global economy as a whole – are entering recession if not depression. Our great modern institutions – projects of rationality, science and technology – are failing; not fit for purpose, not capable of saving lives, not capable of avoiding elite capture, not capable of halting their destruction of the earth. Their rotten cores are on display and becoming additional fuel in the polarisation of societies that are clinging, ever more desperately, to whatever semblance of stability is put on offer, no matter how far it falls short – under even a cursory glance – of the supposed ideals that were once the rallying cries of progress.
The disconnect between this grim reality and the narrative of progress that lurks at the very core of ‘liberal’ thought and institutions, is enough to trigger a sort of desperate denial/negation of that reality, even as it imposes a perpetual existential anxiety. This appears to me as one of the deep psychological problems of the liberal middle classes: they stand everywhere and nowhere; their values have no teeth in the present context.
While the uncomfortable comfort of anxiety-fuelled denial will persist amongst those who have enjoyed modern comforts, the reality remains the same. We are hurtling toward a collapse that is most likely going to be civilisational in its proportions. The earth that remains at the end of this, will bear little resemblance to the one that any of us alive today were born into. We do not know what survival in this world will entail. What social and economic formations it will sustain. How will they articulate with ecological imperatives, once the cushions that biodiverse biomes, fertile soils, abundant forests and nutrient rich oceans have offered us have been sucked dry?
In my view, it is in relation to this new world that we must define our work. I speak to those who would recognise themselves in this call, for whom the composition of a we, a never ending exercise of recomposition, resonates. This unstable ‘we’ finds itself in the midst of a very serious seemingly all-out war. It is a war over the hotly-contested heterogeneous terrains of existence and the social and economic modes of co-existence that they enable. This calls for a rigorous reassessment of the terrain, the stakes, the investments, the concepts and the practices that are needed for survival. I hope in the coming months to further develop and share my thinking along these lines.