Ever since 2001, it’s been customary to talk of the ‘post-9/11’ world. When I participated in a think-tank on the subject in the months just after that event, I began a process of trying to organize my own thinking around the new shape of our world, and, frankly, it hasn’t gone well. Many of the theorists of social and political organization to whom I look themselves emerged in the century between the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the post-WW 2 world. Their interests surround the structure of capital and society, and tend towards the battle lines that describe that world, from a purely human perspective (where ‘human’ is understood as ‘human in capitalist society, where control of capital is the single most important aspect of what it is to be a human’). Because of this—because of the influence of various theorists over various governments, and the polarization of those governments in the 20th century, it was easy to see this century as one that was taken up by ideological differences between great powers.
Initially, it seemed like it would be fairly simple—if conceptually dissatisfying—to see the post-9/11 world as one that would replace ‘communism’ with ‘radical Islam’, and off we would go on our merry way. Yet, although there has been a remarkably concerted attempt to use the categories developed in the run-up to WW 2—perfected during the Cold War—to construct an ‘enemy’ for capitalism (now that ‘commies’ are in short supply), those clothes don’t fit terribly well on the new straw men.
I’ve come to an uncomfortable realization in the past couple of years: Ours was never an age of ideology. Marxism didn’t fail in the Soviet Union—it was never applied. There was no ideological battle for hearts and minds on our planet. There was only the ongoing imperialism that burst initially out of a European context, and swiftly taught everyone else on the planet that there were two roads: either to expand their own control mechanisms in a similar fashion, or to be caught up in the unprecedented application of control across the face of our planet. This week’s events in New Brunswick exhibit both of those: the (post-)colonial Canadian government sweeping in with serious force of arms forcibly to vacate a peaceful protest by members of the Elsipogtog band of the Mi’kmaq Nation, whose opposition to hydraulic fracturing—fracking—represents both more ancient care for the land, and the recognition that such care is neither outmoded nor ignorant, but rather the only possible way forward on a planet that can no longer tolerate the rapacious treatment that industrialization has forced on it.
By the end of the 19th century, empires either controlled nearly every habitable or exploitable space on earth, or had left colonial powers in control of previous imperial territory through a series of ‘independence’ processes. Take a moment to think about that. From the so-called ‘Age of Exploration’ that kicked off at the close of the 15th century, it only took roughly three centuries to extend imperial or colonial control over the entirety of the globe. The industrial revolution was symptomatic of the growing desire for control that European and European-derived culture had developed in the centuries since Europeans began expanding their control across the planet. And, in the headlong rush to control the Risk board, the development of the logic of capital has been the single most powerful and fluid system to exploit and concentrate what the planet has to offer.
And it all runs on oil.
Well, coal, gas and oil. And the thing is, we’re all hooked on the stuff. We’re so used to a human existence based on oil that we can’t even conceptualize something different. Even in our resistance to this, we get so excited about alternatives—renewable resources, renewable energy, etc.—that we miss the deforestation for the trees.
The melting polar ice caps in our own era are opening up whole new territories, particularly in the Arctic. Watch as today’s imperial and colonial successors to 19th-century empires replicate the behaviour of that period. Greenpeace’s recent high-profile action and subsequent arrest for piracy in Russia’s so-called ‘exclusive economic zone’ is case-in-point.
The 20th century wasn’t the century of ideology. It was the century of oil-fueled control, and we all, slowly but surely, joined in.
Along the way, the control structures at the top of the food-chain of capital developed and adapted methods to make the notion of resistance to them apparently impossible. Breaking through the wall of capital only issues in finding yourself coming back through the door at the back of the building that you thought you’d just left (perhaps the most appallingly profound moment in Kafka’s The Trial). There’s no egress, except, somehow, in the realization that there’s no egress.
When I thought that the 20th century was the age of ideology, I thought that despair was pretty much the only appropriate—or at least inevitable—response to this. But it never was the age of ideology. It was the age of planetary rape and murder carried out on a scale too vast and diffuse even fully to be able to conceptualize it. Our philosophies and ideological opposition to inequal distribution of wealth and privilege masked our full engagement in a process that, quite simply, is inimical to life. Or at least to human life.
And I’m rather partial to human life.
It used to be the case that we had a human-made arsenal of weapons that embodied this, and against which it was, frankly, rather easier to mount opposition than to our planetary dependence on oil. Nuclear weapons were additional. We didn’t need them to kill each other, and, in fact, the concept of using them was so far beyond rational that fifty years of arts are affected by this in a consistent and rather obvious fashion.
But oil. We’ve been using it for so long that we think that we don’t know any other ways of being. The concentration of power associated with coal, gas and oil is so complete that ‘resistance’ seems, well, futile.
To extend an idiom, though: Seeing is not believing, and ‘seem’ is not ‘being’. The built-in sense that we are incapable of change, that oil-culture is inevitable, necessary and sustainable is an extremely powerful component of the control structure that has been woven together for the past century and a half. The force of apparent necessity is only effective in so far as we continue to accept that it is so.
Short- and long-term change is possible. Look what we’ve done in the past century and a half to destroy the planet’s balance! We have that power. Anyone who doubts our ability as a species to effect change, please just look at the world’s forests. We’ve cut down nearly 80% of them. What a feat!
Short-term change is the beginning, but fighting for it is going to take a lot more than the short-term returns will bring. The control structures that have evolved in this period are driven by profit and greed. There is no ‘care’ in them, except insofar as apparent care is forced on them. But even this will be a lie. Capital is generated on the basis of real or perceived need, and the coming century of consequence will bring with it remarkable need. Climate change? Of course we can take care of that! Sea levels rising? Have we got the dike for you.
We have allowed ourselves to be turned into children being led around and told what to do. We have allowed it so completely that even beginning to resist this trend elicits the most incredible backlash from our fellow humans. Protest, resistance, refusal to obey all elicit critique from both vertical and horizontal tendrils in the control structure of capital.
The fact of the matter is that many, many battles will be lost before the bodies that pile up cause a stink fetid enough to shift public reasoning. Our way of life is incredibly young, unbelievably destructive, and headed for collapse.
In Canada, we have a lot of short-term battles to fight. In British Columbia alone, where I live, we are particularly concerned with the desire to pipe tar sands bitumen through our province into tankers that will pose enormous danger to our coastline and the harbour of our principle city, Vancouver. Before we even begin to talk about the piping of the bitumen from Alberta, the tar sands themselves present enormous problems both locally and globally. Fracking and its consequences for local and global community also has many local battles being fought, in locations across the globe. The Mi’kmaq have, largely because of RCMP stupidity and terrible short-term thinking on the part of the planners of the government and corporate response to their protest, become national and international news, but the struggle is far from over.
Will fracking go ahead in New Brunswick? Likely. Will the Transmountain pipeline be expanded? Probably. Will the Northern Gateway pipeline go through? I expect that it will. And I will do whatever I can to oppose each and every one of these short-term projects, because it is through the short-term battles—even the ones that are lost—that long-term public logic will begin to shift.
Revolutions don’t happen at the end of the barrel of a gun. This sort of action rarely—if ever—does much more than to provide short-term change. The real task here is in the changing of broad-scale societal expectations and actions, and this is perhaps the single greatest challenge that humanity has faced in the last several tens of thousands of years.