The Moment of Danger: Catastrophe and Actualization

As radicals, we’re often accused of looking for trouble. The problem is, nowadays, we don’t have to look very far. Everywhere we turn, it seems like trouble has seized the initiative. It has stolen the wind from our sails. It has come looking for us. Under conditions like these, being radical isn’t what it used to be. It can’t be. One of the remarkable things about trouble is how it seems to have gathered everyone around the same table. And, because there’s plenty to go around, you can take your pick from the banquet of catastrophes laid out before us. Will it be climate change, the peaking of world oil production, the spreading financial crisis, or some combination of all of these that will bring the world to a grinding halt? Have we reached a point where our very ability to continue living under conditions like those that allowed us to evolve is being called into question, or are we simply (!) facing the latest in a long series of catastrophes that are part and parcel of what capitalism calls normal?

Whatever our particular take on these questions, one thing is clear: history and catastrophe share a secret bond. Revolutionaries have long known that the back-story to the grand epic called “progress” was written in blood. And it’s precisely this knowledge that has compelled us to act. But how often do we contemplate the other catastrophe, the one that we must ourselves enact in order to become principal actors on the world stage? How will we overcome the climate of fear that capitalism’s new catastrophes have brought with them? And how will we act so that – this time – we are able to revitalize a kind of socio-natural synthesis that we’re familiar with (if at all) only by virtue of the traces it’s left in our myths and folklore?

At its most basic, catastrophe entails a decisive shift, a break in the story being told. The ancient Greeks associated catastrophe (from katastrephein – “to overturn”) with the pivotal moment when familiar things can be turned upside down.  Applied to dramatic tragedy, the catastrophe referred to the final instance. It marked the moment when all that came before it was decided. The outcome may not have been the one for which the viewer had hoped. And yet, the tragedy made clear that, if it were not for resolute commitment to a course of action whose outcome could not be known in advance, no real change would be possible. Catastrophe teaches us that the danger of not acting is as great as or worse than the danger of taking a chance that can never be taken back.

For much of the 20th Century, many radicals were seduced by the story of progress. They thought that the development of the productive forces was identical to the unfolding story of human emancipation. What this orientation betrayed was the revolutionary tradition’s debt to the past. Here, because there is a properly catastrophic dimension to the revolutionary tradition, revolutionary politics truly comes into its own. Despite being suppressed by other considerations, this catastrophic relation to the past has nevertheless left its trace in the lyrics of anthems like ‘Solidarity Forever’ (where we are reminded how “we shall bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old”) and ‘The Internationale,’ (where – at the moment of the “final conflict” – “the earth shall rise on new foundations”).

This decisive orientation to the past is at odds with the conception of history that dominates the world today. Committed to its solemn task, the history of progress owns up to those catastrophes it can’t conceal. It dutifully notes the devastation that smallpox brought to the indigenous people of Turtle Island. It bows its head before the mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It weeps bitterly in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In these postures, however feigned they might be, it is possible to see the preconditions for redemption. However, if our orientation to history leads us to recount catastrophes such as these as instances, as links in a chain of events, then they will slip through our fingers like the beads of a rosary.

History recounted in this way is proxy contemplation. The opportunity to confront the catastrophe directly – the opportunity to cut decisively against the narrative arc of progress – is lost the moment we ignore the fact that these events are not anomalies. They are the latent content of every quiet moment. They always threaten to erupt. And where those committed to the myth of progress see a “chain of events,” today’s radicals must learn (as Walter Benjamin proposed) to trace the contours of “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.” This is catastrophe as told from the standpoint of the oppressed. For Benjamin, this standpoint made it possible to see that the “state of emergency” invoked by capitalism every time something broke down was not the exception but the rule.

The 60th anniversary of al Nakba, the catastrophic expulsion of indigenous Palestinians from their lands, precisely highlights the means by which the exception becomes the rule. For Zionists, the expulsion itself (designated by a euphemism drawn from the annals of national mythology) was a single moment, an event now fully assimilated into the story of national progress. Recounting al Nakba from the standpoint of the oppressed, Palestinians know this same event as one that has lasted 60 years. It finds expression in every demolished home. It sinks roots in every devastated olive grove.  It stands with rifle in hand at every checkpoint.

And like those Palestinians who knew that al Nakba could only be undone by intifada (the moment of convulsive awakening), Benjamin envisioned that the capitalist catastrophe – the catastrophe emanating from the logic of progress – could be interrupted by another kind of catastrophe, one he called “a real state of emergency.” This catastrophe takes the form of a dramatic interruption. The unending chain of events is broken by the reckoning of a decisive moment. At the point where the chain of events is ruptured, Benjamin saw a chance for gathering and channeling revolutionary energies.

Accounts of revolution such as this are more likely to produce questions than provide answers. But if we find them compelling, it is (at very least) incumbent upon us to ask: what would it look like to make a decisive intervention like the one proposed by Benjamin? And what opportunities does our current situation – our confrontation with the new “state of emergency” announced by capitalism – provide us when trying to interrupt it?

In 2007, the capitalist mainstream finally caught up with the realities of climate change. Al Gore won a Nobel peace prize and an Academy Award. With less fanfare but more consequence, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report infused the proceedings with the solemnity that only hard facts can deliver. Not to be upstaged, 2008 marked the moment when the radical left began regrouping around a collective critique of impending capitalist ruin. In the global north, publications like Monthly Review, Left Turn, and Turbulence devoted special issues to the question of crisis. Left journalists like Naomi Klein and George Monbiot issued urgent calls and added to their already widespread acclaim.

Marxists of various sorts joined the fray by contributing explorations of the relationship between ecology, capitalism, and socialist transformation. Recent essays in the journals Capitalism Nature Socialism, Socialist Register, Historical Materialism and Science & Society have sought to address the dangers and peculiarities of capital’s new catastrophe. Last but not least, anarchists of all sorts began plotting new lines through the changing and treacherous terrain. Alongside – and often in opposition to – the social ecology perspective influenced by the late Murray Bookchin, publications like Green Anarchy, Anarchy Magazine, and The Fifth Estate provided space for the elaboration of strong primitivist and anti-technological positions.

Despite their divergent perspectives, commentators have so far tended to agree on the distinctiveness of today’s political conjuncture. According to Turbulence, the intersecting character of today’s food, climate, oil, Iraq, and financial crises makes the task of “crisis management” much more difficult. Moreover, because the crises of the 1970s – which share many similarities with those facing the US today – were overcome by “financialization, deregulation, the rolling back of social guarantees, and an internalization of all risk by individuals,” today’s capitalists must “resolve” the problem, at least in part, by other means. What these will be remains unclear.

Although there has been far less unanimity on the point, commentators have also highlighted the interconnection between capitalism’s exploitation of labour and its exploitation of nature. The implications of this observation, although not always expressed directly, are clear: any meaningful response to the catastrophe must attend to the intersecting logic of capitalism’s attacks on workers and its orientation to the natural world. This is so not least because inter-capitalist competition, technological innovation, and constant economic expansion have all contributed to increasing rates of material and energy consumption (forms of consumption that produce commodities and ‘waste’ in equal measure). And while capitalists seek to resolve the problem by increasing efficiency, they always end by increasing overall consumption. In this way, the problem of waste gets amplified.

It’s not difficult to find traces of this process at work. A full-page ad on the back of a 2008 Mountain Equipment Co-op catalog indicates that, because of their commitment to the environment, they’ve tried to reduce their emissions. Remarkably, they lowered CO2 output per product from 204 grams in 2005 to 191 grams in 2007. However, the ad notes, “since we sold more products in 2007, the total emissions actually increased.” Through its honesty, MEC may have scored points with green consumers; however, this same honesty also served to highlight the inevitable dilemma faced by anyone trying to save the world while remaining bound to the logic of capitalism.

The North American left’s orientation to catastrophe is shaped by two prominent currents. The first involves an attempt to resolve the conditions of catastrophe by modifying capital, by getting it to expunge its worst excesses, and by turning toward forms of “green” accumulation that might mitigate the problems we face. The second approach, advanced primarily by primitivists, mixes despair with a celebratory attitude fueled by the belief that the catastrophe is harbinger to a liberating reversion to forms of pre-industrial social organization. While current left approaches to the ecological questions certainly cannot be reduced to these two orientations, they do tend to be shaped by their assumptions to a greater or lesser extent.1

We can see the first tendency in the work of Naomi Klein, whose response to the problem of “disaster capitalism”2 has been to advocate a return to a kinder and gentler version of the same. Refusing to identify capitalism itself as the problem (preferring instead to blame “disaster-capitalism,” “savage-capitalism,” or “neoliberal-capitalism”), Klein adopts a classically liberal posture by proposing that capitalism – a “market-based” system predicated on dispossession – could theoretically exist without causing harm. “I am not arguing that all forms of market systems are inherently violent,” she writes.

It is eminently possible to have a market-based economy that requires no such brutality and demands no such ideological purity. A free market in consumer products can coexist with free public healthcare, with public schools, with a large segment of the economy – like the national oil company – held in state hands. It’s equally possible to require corporations to pay decent wages, to respect the rights of workers to form unions, and for governments to tax and redistribute wealth so that the sharp inequalities that mark the corporatist state are reduced. Markets need not be fundamentalist. (24)

Klein’s efforts to moderate capitalist excess appear pragmatic. After all, one should not underestimate capitalism’s considerable flexibility. However, it is also necessary that we not ignore its limits. As highlighted by Turbulence, the amount of wiggle room available to capital is now much smaller than it was 30 years ago when it “resolved” the crises it was then confronting by divesting itself of precisely the constraints Klein would hope to revitalize. The dream of returning to some idyllic Keynesian past must inevitably crash against the inescapable realities of a world in which use value is forever subordinated to value. 

Like Klein, George Monbiot appears profoundly radical in his insistence that advanced capitalist countries need to make an immediate 90 percent cut in carbon emissions in order to stop temperatures from rising more than 2°C by 2030. Failing to do so, Monbiot reports, will bring the planet perilously close to several climate change “tipping points.” These tipping points could introduce “non-linear” consequences – including mass extinctions, rising sea levels, and the disruption of crucial oceanic heating and cooling currents.

In Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, Monbiot considers how an industrialized country like the United Kingdom might achieve the necessary cut in carbon emissions. He argues that – if the appropriate political will could somehow be mustered – 
this kind of drastic cut in emissions could be achieved within the existing market system. However, this would require that the state intervene along Keynesian lines in order to mobilize society through progressive taxation, carrot-and-stick industrial policies, and the initiation of public works projects.

Monbiot’s thought experiment shows how severe cuts to CO2 emissions might be feasible if we made drastic changes to every aspect of the economy. However, his analysis contemplates neither the class character of the industrial state nor the antagonistic relationships that animate capitalist society and tend to destabilize even its most “progressive” forms. Despite his pragmatic tone, Monbiot’s proposal falls prey to wishful thinking by accepting that the underlying social organization of capitalist production can be left undisturbed in the great transition to a post-carbon future.

The problem with solutions such as these is that, not only do they “resolve” the crisis by deferring it to some later point (where it will return – as all repressed phenomena tend to do – with even greater fury than it mustered the first time around), they also severely truncate the scope of the politically thinkable.  Although they are both concerned with its worst excesses, neither Klein nor Monbiot is willing to identify capitalism itself as the problem. Their proposed solutions always have us returning to a mythical bygone age when capitalist markets were embedded in democratic communities. The belief that capitalism can overcome its excesses and ascend to new levels of ecological and social rationality is a left version of the progress myth.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t support struggles that abide by this logic. In the short term, the practical effects of such initiatives could be lifesaving. However, since these efforts end by giving capitalism itself a new lease on life (since they defer the catastrophe implicit in capitalism to some later point), it is necessary that we ask those with whom we work to keep the logical limits of these “achievable” strategies in mind.

In 1994, Frederic Jameson remarked on the fact that today it is easier to envision the end of the world than it is to envision the end of capitalism. The “pragmatism” of today’s left is the perfect monument to this state of diminished expectations. Far from being a threat, such pragmatism suits the far-sighted representatives of the capitalist class looking to make alliances with “progressives.” From former US Vice President Al Gore to oilman-turned-wind-power-advocate T. Boone Pickens, green capitalists are seeking to blunt capitalism’s most ecologically destructive tendencies and shift accumulation into whole new areas of profitability. And progressives, in their search for pragmatic solutions, risk ceding their dreams of a better world to those who would turn them into fuel for the revitalization of sagging markets.

For a growing number of radicals, the answer to both the looming catastrophe and the inadequacy of market-based responses is straightforward: because civilization, anthropocentric thinking, and technology are the bases for an inevitable and unrelenting exploitation of the natural world, we must do our part to undo their effects.

The popularity of primitivism within the contemporary North American anti-authoritarian scene has been difficult to ignore. To be sure, the number of people actually espousing outright primitivism remains quite small and the primitivist emphasis on “dropping out” necessarily relegates them to the margins of existing movements. Nevertheless, the countercultural resonance of primitivism is widespread. Perversely (and despite their seeming opposition), this resonance owes much to the points of intersection between primitivist thought and the Green consumerist emphasis on individual probity and action. 

John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen are leading proponents of the primitivist orientation in North America. Despite their differences, both authors anticipate the moment when ecocidal devastation emancipates us by throwing us back into an immediate connection with nature. As Zerzan expains, “it has become clear to some that the depth of the expanding crisis… stems from the cardinal institutions of civilization itself.”

The discredited promises of Enlightenment and modernity represent the pinnacle of the grave mistake known as civilization. There is no prospect that this Order will renounce that which has defined and maintained it, and apparently little likelihood that its various ideological supporters can face the facts. If civilization’s collapse has already begun, a process now unofficially but widely assumed, there may be grounds for a widespread refusal or abandonment of the reigning totality. Indeed, its rigidity and denial may be setting the stage for a cultural shift on an unprecedented scale, which could unfold rapidly.3

As an indictment of progress, Zerzan’s thinking is compelling. It highlights the interconnection between human alienation and the degradation of the natural world. It also accords with the romantic disposition that often pervades contemporary North American social movements. But for all its radical appeal, Zerzan’s perspective ends by answering the problem of catastrophe with what can only be described as the inverted but logical complement to the ameliorative Keynesianism of Klein and Monbiot.

Like them, Zerzan correctly identifies the origin of catastrophe in the mode of production. However, whereas Klein and Monbiot seek to address the problem of the mode by mitigating its excesses, Zerzan’s proposal has us doing away with production altogether. The problem is that the belief that it would be possible for human beings to populate a primitivist world devoid of a complex social division of labor (and thus of “production” as such) fundamentally misunderstands what it means to “be human” today. Furthermore, since it resorts to negation rather than production as a response, Zerzan’s perspective would require a drastic reduction in human population. Indeed, this is what he proposes.

It’s a tough pill to swallow. But if we are committed not only to an analysis of today’s problems but to their resolution as well, we have to contemplate what forms of social labour would meet human needs (and allow for the historical development of human capacities) while – at the same time – working with a more intimate connection to the logic of nature’s own contributions to the production process.

Despite the distortion of experience arising from life under capitalism, human production has always entailed a metabolic interaction between labour and nature. However, even prior to the advent of capitalism, humans have tended to resolve the problems posed by nature in the production process through domination. Contemporary romanticizations of the “pastoral” world ignore the fact that agriculture always entailed a violent assault on natural processes. For its part, nature has often refused to be a willing participant. Friedrich Engels addressed this problem directly in The Dialectics of Nature. “Let us not… flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquests over nature,” he begins.

For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first.

Nature returns. Like a repressed phenomenon, it reappears and demands that labour – which proceeded as though it was the only consideration in the production process – be forced to take it into account. Because, at their logical conclusion, labour and nature are interpenetrated categories, the realization of human needs through forms of production in which labour dominates nature amounts to wishful thinking. It is a fantasy world. Divorced from nature, human labour develops in distorted and fanciful ways. The flipside of this fantasy is catastrophe.

However, only under capitalist production has concrete nature become so subordinated to the dictates of abstract labour that the metabolic tie becomes completely severed. From this distortion arise two intersecting symptoms: human alienation and the catastrophic responses arising from the natural world’s transposition from living and dynamic process to warehouse of diminishing stocks. At its logical conclusion, the distortion also highlights the centrality of production to both the creation and the resolution of the catastrophes confronting us.

Because capitalist production considers the objective attributes of its inputs but not their origins in the material world, it exacerbates the division between labour and nature. According to Marxist ecologist Colin Duncan,4 “a society indifferent to use values in the course of producing them is always at least latently capable of infinite violence towards nature.” For Duncan, “indifference to use value in production is a kind of indifference to life, a factor in the sequestering of life in this narrow sphere of consumption.” This is because “as producers nobody cares how production occurs, and as consumers nobody can know how production occurs.” (150)

Because of this, catastrophe caused by capitalism cannot simply be resolved through the appropriation of the existing means of production. The history of socialism for much of the 20th Century (and especially in its concrete Soviet iteration) was one in which the industrial capacities of capitalism were fetishized and uncritically appropriated. Instead of the nature-labour dialectic, the outstanding question for 20th Century socialists was ownership. The watchword was “progress.” To be sure, the question of ownership should not be discounted; the parasitic relationship of capital to those it would reduce to the status of a commodity must be addressed in order for any revolutionary transformation to occur.

However, the problem of ownership is not the only (and perhaps not even the central) problem pertaining to the organization of the productive forces. We must ask ourselves: what would it mean to develop a conception of social-natural change and human development that was based not on the abstract myth of “progress” but rather on the concrete process of individual and collective actualization?5

What we must contemplate, then, is how to recalibrate the nature-labour interaction so that the alienation intrinsic to domination can be overcome without subverting the historical process of human development. Put another way, we must ask: what sort of production might redeem both human and natural history? If the appropriation of the means of production is central to the project of social revolution, then how can we deal with the fact that, in their current form, these means are built upon the schism between labour and nature that underwrites the catastrophe we now face?

Rather than presuming that labour has to dominate nature in order for human needs to be realized, we have to consider the forms of production already implicit in ecological networks that can be harnessed and developed. What hidden capacities does nature – as a central component of the production process – already hold that can be fruitfully integrated into the elaboration of human needs? Experiments of this kind find their antecedents in agrarian practices like those of the Iroquois, who planted self-sustaining and amplifying crop mixtures that incorporated corn, beans, and squash. These crops were based on the premise of actualization; they sought out the latent logic of productive interactions and facilitated their realization. It was an approach to nature wholly at odds with the domination entailed by productive processes that foreground abstract labour and produce abstract use values.

Contemporary experiments with actualization seem limited by their tendency to seem applicable only to the agricultural sphere. However, even here, it is possible to see how such an orientation to production might be extended and generalized. Describing the productive innovations in agriculture realized by Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, Colin Duncan concludes that “the key” is “perfect timing.” This is because Fukuoka’s system substitutes attention for labor.

As a species of intervention in natural processes, Fukuoka’s farming is actually far more profoundly disruptive or “unnatural” than old-fashioned farming, which consisted in resignation to toil in the face of the surrounding biological complexity (the inexorable phenomenon of succession). However, unlike chemical farming, which tries to banish biology, Fukuoka’s method frankly recognizes biotic complexity and deliberately exploits it. Fukuoka found after several decades of experimenting that a virtually work free system can be set in motion requiring only a very sharp biological eye. (156)

Duncan concludes by noting that, “in managing to substitute attention for toil, Fukuoka may be pointing to a radically different way for us to relate to each other because of the drastic reduction in necessary toil.” This stands in sharp contrast to the tendency of socialists throughout the 20th Century to tell the story of human emancipation as a version of the progress myth. For Duncan, these revolutionaries failed to acknowledge how their conception of emancipated production depended “on the exploitation of finite supplies of concentrated energy (fuels) and finite concentrated supplies and materials.” The waste generated by this production process was never integrated back into the cycles of living nature. However, “Fukuoka sidesteps all this. His work implies that if we look carefully, we can get inside ecological cycles and go for a remarkable ‘free ride’ within them.” (156-157)

These agrarian examples are interesting primarily for the insights they offer about new ways of thinking through ecological questions and considering the challenges that face us as we struggle toward a desirable future on the other side of catastrophe. Underlying the necessity of devising new approaches to production is the need to come to terms with the historical division between labour and nature. Concretely, it means developing modes of interaction in which the generative capacities of nature are not viewed as secondary to the realization of use values. Finally, and at its most radical, insisting that another production is possible demands that our conception of socialism reconsider the value of those utopian thinkers who envisioned emancipation as arising from the perfect identity between people and the world they inhabit.6 Here, human history’s actualization takes the form not of an emancipation from nature but rather of a complete assimilation of both labour and nature within conscious and collectivized socio-natural networks.

Of necessity, this means abandoning or transforming many of the means of production that previous generations of socialists thought they could simply appropriate. However daunting this realization is, we must remember that coming to terms with the non-appropriability of prior forms has always marked the maturation of revolutionary projects. Just as the Paris Commune marked the moment when French workers dispelled the illusion that their task was “to complete the work of 1789 hand in hand with the bourgeoisie,”7 so the new catastrophe marks the moment when we can begin articulating a conception of socialism not predicated on the appropriated spoils of industrialism.

Discarding means of production that amplify the division between labour and nature is properly catastrophic. It is a key way that we can, in Benjamin’s terms, “create a real emergency.” It is a means by which the story called progress can be interrupted. However, in order for this emergency to be more than a return to the first instance (in order for it to redeem a history of injustice rather than set the clock back to zero), we must disavow those who would discard the knowledge arising from the elaboration of those means. As Fukuoka’s experiments suggest, the knowledge gained through the domination of nature is the historical precondition to the elaboration of productive socio-natural syntheses. This history has been brutal. It is written in blood. But it is only through the revolutionary transformation of production that this history can be redeemed. For labour as well as nature.


1 Although it is rarely explicit, most responses to the capitalist crisis centre their critiques around the dynamics of production. For Marx, production was conceived as the dynamic interaction between labour and nature. These categories were only formally distinguishable and, at their logical limits, became fully interpenetrated. Because capitalism exacerbates the division between the two terms, responses to capitalist crisis have often tended to align themselves around solutions that address either the distortions of labour or nature. Ecofeminism, a perspective that came to prominence in the 1990s and that continues to play an important role in responding to capitalist devastation, has often posited either a natural or imposed connection between women and nature. The resolution of the catastrophe that threatens us takes the form of a revalorization of nature in the production process. This has sometimes led ecofeminists to endorsements of the liberating potential perceived in subsistence farming. In contrast, social ecologists have sought to resolve the disconnect between labour and nature in the capitalist production process by revalorizing labour. However, because the current mode of production makes sustainability impossible, this revalorization demands that the orientation of labour to nature be fundamentally reconceived along a more metabolically integrated course. Because the perspectives of Klein and Monbiot and of the primitivists are the most widely discussed instances of these two positions today, we have decided to focus on them here. However, our proposed analysis could be usefully applied to most other responses as well.

2 Klein, Naomi. (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. A.A. Knopf Canada, Toronto


4 Duncan, Colin.  (1996). The Centrality of Agriculture: Between Humankind and the Rest of Nature. Buffalo, Montreal.

5 The problem of actualization is central to Walter Benjamin’s conception of history. In the “theories” section of The Arcades Project, Benjamin writes: “It may be considered one of the methodological objectives of this work to demonstrate a historical materialism which has annihilated within itself the idea of progress. Just here, historical materialism has every reason to distinguish itself from bourgeois habits of thought. Its founding concept is not progress but actualization.” (1999:[N2,2]) Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA

6 Long derided for his utopian excesses, Charles Fourier is one such thinker. His discussion of the utopian Phalanx – the community in which labour and nature coexist and amplify one another in a pleasing and productive arrangement – serves as a useful wish image, an anticipation of the transformation of the productive process we must now consider. See the discussion of “The Idea Community” (233-271) in The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier (1971) Beacon Press, Boston.

7 Walter Benjamin, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” Reflections (1978:160). Schocken Books, New York.