On the failure of ecology to analyse and subvert suicide capitalism
Background notes to a catastrophe (to be shuffled at will) and merely another book that will never be published…
The Institute of Experimental Freedom: From the Introduction to The Apocalpse (prior to COP15)…….
“All of us secretly desire for this world to end. The future lasts forever. Or at least, it used to. The grand illusion of Western civilisation has always been the myth of progress, namely that the flow of history would beneficently extend into an infinite future. To our parents, civilisation offered houses in the suburbs, computers, and automobiles. And civilisation delivered. To the children of these workers, civilisation offered life on the moon, artificial intelligence, endless peace. All of which have failed to emerge. While our parents cling to the belief that someday the mortgage will be repaid and they can retire in happiness, their lost children know this is a lie. This world offers nothing to us: no meaningful work, no rest, no future – only fear. Over and over again, we find ourselves conditioned like rats by the images of not just our own death, but of total destruction. From the collapse of the World Trade Centre to the alien invasion, from the spectre of nuclear war to the hole in the ozone layer – and now the melting glaciers – these images ingrain themselves in our very being. These images are nothing more than modern projections of the deep-set fantasy of all religions: the apocalypse.
Today, catastrophic climate change is the image of the apocalypse. Nothing has escaped the touch of humanity, from the deepest oceans to the atmosphere itself. There is little doubt that carbon emissions caused by human activity may bring about the end of the world as we know it. It’s just a matter of listening to the ticking of the doomsday clock as it counts down to a climactic apocalypse. Never before in recorded history has the question of the earth’s survival been so starkly posed, and never before has such news been greeted with such indifference.
What is to be done in the face of a crisis so large it dwarfs the imagination? We are left with nothing but a sense of impending doom, a strange depression that keeps us oscillating between hysterical hedonism and sad loneliness, and in the end both responses are merely the two faces of the selfsame despair. Those self-appointed to “save” us from this crisis – the governments, scientists, activists – seem incapable of anything but sloganeering: clean development, carbon markets, sustainable development, climate justice, ecological reparations, green capitalism. We know in our heart of hearts that these fantasies give any sensible person as much cold comfort as a stiff drink. Confronted with the real possibility of the apocalypse, the world becomes inverted: to continue as if everything is normal in the present moment is the most refined act of nihilism. This generalised delirium, formerly confined to only a handful of activists, has spread over the last few years to the population at large and even the state seems a sincere believer in catastrophic climate change. Observe the reaction of the nation-states who, while in endless summits to “solve” the climate crisis, such as the COP15, continue to build airport after airport, highway after highway, giving industries the remit to emit ever-more carbon. The nation-states continue to act as if everything is normal, while at the same time lying through their gritted teeth that “we are solving the climate crisis.” No-one today, even the children, believe them. Their summits and pledges are mere fiddling while Rome burns.
The absurd plots hatched by scientists to avert this coming apocalypse, from putting mirrors into space to pumping water from the bottom of the ocean, have only the virtue of being at least mildly entertaining. There is a distinct air of madness about our rulers, a madness that reminds us only too much of the monarchs of the ancien regime shortly before their beheading. Yet, what can a single person do? The despair felt when confronted by the reality of climate change is an honest appraisal of a disaster where there is no easy escape. Let us hold this despair close, let it nurture us. Honesty is always the best policy for survival.”
Firstly let us say that we heartily agree with everything that has been said in the above article written by some young Americans pre the COP15 December 2009 conference noting however the glaring omission of a critique of art when art in an expanded form of reproduction encompassing the growing theatrics of everyday life is central to the suicide form of capitalism now engulfing the planet. The following is broadly an overview of the intermingling of art, science and politics; of the decadence of an interdisciplinary state of affairs which falls well short of an inherent grasp of dialectical totality whereby specialisms elide into each other profoundly altering their shape in the process together with its seemingly ineluctable consequence; the necessity of acquiring a total social revolutionary perspective as the only way out of this very desperate situation. If these coming chapters here can be shuffled at will it’s because there’s a certain amount of repetition but a repetition on the lines of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in order to bring out other tangential improvisations on old tunes enriching possible future avenues of action……
Some of the following text encounters the idiocies of a no-growth economy lamenting such naivety because capitalism seeks expansion at any cost. Though easy to point to the rise of industrial capitalism in the China/India nexus, what we emphasise here is the expansion of ‘internal’ capitalism – nature as a dynamic component of exchange and marketing - as our everyday lives, mores and bodies, including the tiny organisms beneath our feet are commodified to the point of extinction. A long time ago the last days of Icteric in Newcastle-upon-Tyne commented upon this personally invasive imperialism which went something like “They pulled out of India only to entrench themselves more deeply inside our skulls”.
A Lead-in to Complete Disaster
Chapter 1: From Rio 1993 to COP15 2009
Nature’s Way/Biodiversity as the unimpeded functioning of markets.
E.O. Wilson’s prize winning book The Diversity of Life (1992), and reader behind the 1993 Rio conference, is a plea for the industrialization of nature and ‘responsible’ exploitation of its commercial potential beginning with a concept food revolution. This Simon Blumenthal of biodiversity (in fact the real kitchen nightmare) goes a step further than the celebrity cook (and indeed anticipates the advent of what was to become a plethora of wholesome food TV series and background rejection of industrial farming) by arguing for a change in the content of agriculture, essentially in order to increase profitability. This concept agronomist of the exotic in the book is really making a case in the book for a massive capital investment program to get the thing off the ground. The Diversity of Life can be read as the economic assessment of a venture capitalist with a view to “drawing more income from the wetlands without killing them and so give the invisible hand of free market economics a green thumb” (our italics). Never has the capitalization and blanket commodification of nature been so much to the fore as today and so little understood as regards the real forces at play, with eco art its advertising front and aesthetic fetish now employed to help sell all the rest minus all dumb fuck artist leftovers never able to realize this is their end game role.
The Earth Summit of 1993 and Cop15 of late 2009 are bedfellows and share a common origin in the 1987 UN forged Montreal Protocol which called for the gradual phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons implicated in the ozone hole. The protocol came about only after a thorough assessment of the science behind ozone depletion. This showed that scientists around the world agreed with the science which in turn provided the green light for global action. Such success made it natural for the UN to ask for the setting up of another global body to cope with the problem of climate change, hence the founding of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) by the World Meteorological Society and the UN Environment Program.
The UN’s belief in its own efficacy, renewed purpose and faith in its global mission must be set alongside the early 1990s UN led war against Iraq, called when it invaded Kuwait in contravention of international law. Post Copenhagen, the UN’s moral authority has bitten the dust and it should act as a warning to people never to put their trust in it again. In the UN Earth Summit held in Rio, global warming was only one of a host of issues on the table at this fluffy Woodstock of green politics, an agreement called the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change introduced and signed by 166 nations. This was to form the basis of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol which did not become international law until 2005. The Kyoto protocol was responsible for introducing market mechanisms by creating a carbon exchange, the basic idea being that countries or companies finding it tough to cut their emissions could meet their targets by purchasing reductions achieved elsewhere. It has of course since proved to be a miserable failure, the Protocol merely establishing a new commodity market that has done nothing to curb emissions, though it has spawned a new breed of righteous millionaire, the carbon millionaire. And that has to be a first.
The commodification of climate change in Kyoto was merely the beginning and more was to follow in the shape of the Stern Report commissioned by the UK Labour party that ludicrously argued that we could trade our way out of the threat posed by climate change. Stern proposed that under the auspices of the state the right signals (expensive carbon taxes) are put in place to carry out a restructuring of the energy economy, and which overlooked the strength of the other powerful signals already in place - those that came from the pressure to maintain profitability from existing carbon intensive investment programs. This state/market orientated approach was however preceded by the ‘honest broking’ of nature as enshrined in the Rio Summit and The Diversity of Life.
The hypocrisy underlying the Rio Summit was evident from the start when the poverty of the favelas was screened from the view of visiting dignitaries and only later did it emerge that the conference was held in an especially designed centre built on a former wetland now become, as Peter Marren said in Nature Conservation, “a necropolis to biodiversity”. But should we really wonder at that when the prefatory text to the summit played fast and loose with a vocabulary that elided terms derived from capitalist economics with those of nature, a wealth of information on entire ecosystems traduced into potential source of wealth to be measured in hard cash. In this new Wealth of Nations green is gold and Adam Smith goes in search of Eve Smith in the bio-diverse Garden of Eden, or what’ s more likely, the biome of England’s Eden Centre under its Cornish geodesic dome.
Following the summit in 1994, the UK government came up with a biodiversity action plan set forth in a pamphlet titled The Bio Diversity Challenge. It was prefaced by Sir William Wilkinson and other members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) who, as Marren quite shamelessly says as if approving, “were keen to demonstrate that voluntary bodies could be as hard headed as any businessman when it came to investment analysis”. To cut a long story short, the upshot is that every time we undertake a nature ramble we are deemed to be engaging in a form of accountancy, where all we see are things and their price, not birds, bees, trees, plants or butterflies. And this insidious shift in perception has happened without due cognisance, behind our backs as it were. It may also go some way toward explaining why natural history bodies increasingly brook no criticism and marginalize dissent, like they were defending corporate secrets and unrestricted executive privilege when it comes to their right to manage. And we need look no further as to the reasons why they are so goddam business friendly – unlike the dear departed, cantankerous buggers of old, which, not that long ago, left their indelible mark on natural history societies and are still fondly remembered for kicking off over just about everything.
Above: A banquet for visiting dignitaries plus a Guantanamo reception for real protestors
Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen
“Without any doubt at all the most important meeting in human history”: Hilary Benn (UK Secretary of State for the Environment)
“The most important gathering since the Second World War”: Sir Nicholas Stern
“Bretton Woods, plus Yalta multiplied by Reykjavik”: Ed Miliband (UK Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change)
“Jack shit”: A protester
15,000 delegates, observers and media personnel, 100 heads of state and government. And an indeterminate number of wannabe high profile artists, stunts, cowed protesters scared to show their face-------------------------- and new police powers of pre-emptive arrest:
Chapter 2. Cop15: The 9/11 of Art & Nature
A Christmas Day/Naomi Klein & George Monbiot/ the Battle of Seattle/the worse than useless “irresistible new machines of resistance”/ John Jordan and the farcical reinvention of Jean Tinguely/ Nietzche and performance
In a rare moment of lucidity Hillary Benn (see quotes immediately above) described Copenhagen as “without a doubt at all the most important meeting of all time”. For anyone with only half an idea, its colossal failure was only to be expected and, though the consequences for the planet and human life will be incalculable, it is also bound to result in extreme polarisation and bring to the fore the imperative need to develop a much more comprehensive and wide ranging critique of capitalism and the state. The ultimate gauntlet has been thrown down and typing this on Christmas day we wonder how many others feel an even deeper loathing than usual for this festival of consumer emptiness and planetary rape now become a suicide pact in all but name. We have just ruined a family’s Christmas, not out of personal malice but because we could do no other. The hollowness of Christmasmas weighed on us as never before and we were driven to flee its clutches more than on any other previous occasion. We are sure that Copenhagen played its part and that millions of people, some more consciously than others, will have reacted in a similar, maddened fashion. Outraged by the everyday consent to avoidable, total destruction, and the starkness of the choices facing each and everyone, the action we and they took was beyond ours, and theirs, powers of self control. Did the conference planners deliberately pick the week before Christmas to stage this summit of all summits, knowing the imminence of the yearly consecration of consumer capitalism would silently work its ‘white magic’ and restore the illusion of ‘business as usual’ when that is what can never be restored ? Billed as a potentially the greatest triumph of universal cooperation, internationalism and objective science there has ever been, Copenhagen quickly became a victim of capitalism’s petty essence: competitive advantage.
But the real tragedy lay in the number who deluded themselves into thinking a positive outcome, against all the odds, was possible. The doyen of acceptable media radicalism, George Monbiot, was extremely pessimistic. Though continuing to offer ‘credible’ alternatives within the capitalist framework, like the urgent need to reform the global financial system and in particular the US senate that is more in hoc to corporate power than any other comparable institution, he is increasingly devoid of hope. The light however has not gone from Naomi Klein’s eyes and, though she should have known better, the judgment of this left social democrat was fatally skewed, as it is for countless others, by her hunger for ‘radical’ art.
As for George Monbiot, his perspectives also don’t go any further than an interesting modern day left social democratic perspective and you sadly feel his lack of simple grass roots experience of conflict. Recently he praised two of the UK’s conservationist bodies noting they were the largest in the world engaged in exemplary tasks. No doubt he meant the RSPB and an invertebrate society – most likely Butterfly Conservation - were fighting the good fight. In reality nothing could be farther from the truth as we know only too well when in the mid-noughties we fought up front and honestly for the future of the Dingy Skipper butterfly on former UK colliery spoil heaps. Because we told it like it is our intervention became the “round up the usual suspects” syndrome, as we were dissed and rubbished, back-stabbed and lied to by conservationist big wigs, even surreptitiously stopped from attending meetings about brownfield sites because we would upset the powers that be – all done through the simple ruse of never letting us know where these venues were - so we couldn’t even do a gatecrash. There is no doubt the leaders of these bodies undoubtedly prefer developers and their financiers to outspoken radicals like ourselves. The result was that the Dingy Skipper was exterminated over a huge area in northern England and conservation organisations played a big part in covering up - even occasionally participating - in this holocaust. The truth is these conservationist organizations are remarkably similar to the machinations of trades unions: you are not thrown out of these rackets rather you are effectively cold shouldered and utterly silenced unless you learn to obey the party line and until that ‘enlightened’ moment you are just the proverbial shit on their shoes. For sure there is an us & them antagonism in these organisations but the apparatchiki make sure it doesn’t get out of hand never going beyond (so far) grumbling and mumbling especially in the RSPB. Nonetheless we have been sharply reminded of our previous bitter experiences with trades unions and you can bet Monbiot will say nothing about any of this…..
Naomi Klein said in an article in The Guardian 13th November 2009: "Seatttle activists coming of age will be very disobedient” concluding what Seattle had begun ten years ago, for, unlike the protestors in Seattle who were hell bent on closing down the World Trade Organisation, the overwhelming number of people in the streets supported “the mission of the meeting”. However it was necessary to reclaim COP15 for the people and that meant turning the Bella Centre into a “peoples centre for climate justice” - in fact a pressure group on power not an actual seizure, and dismantling, of an inherently alien power, the creature not the creator of a global capitalism. What would spearhead this universal peoples’ lobby of all parliaments would be an art attack machine that would crash clean through the lines of riot police guarding the centre. But come the moment even pepper spray was unnecessary and the unwieldy machine, assembled from hundreds of old bikes, inhibited demonstrators more than it did the police. There was no evidence that it was even successful in confining the carbon kings to their hotels. It was an insidious, damned nuisance all round, the poison of art tragically corrupting ‘authorized’ protest, perhaps for all time with authority more than ever primed to make maximum use of it to dampen down potentially explosive situations. Put bluntly, the week long Battle of Seattle in 1999 was more or less spontaneously splendid whereas Copenhagen was programmed and appalling. And contra Naomi Klein the whole thing was a set piece enforced also by brutal police measures whereby nothing was allowed to happen, apart from – you guessed it – eco art performance. It was an experiment if you like in a new avant-garde form of a possible future police state, aestheticised bread & circuses. Seattle 1999 was uncultured and philistine in comparison and art historical references were merely incidental, like the laudable surrealist watchword, “armed love”, sprayed on a wall. (American surrealism has always been far less comprised by art than in the UK because of the influence of Rebel Worker and examples like Franklin Rosemont’s book on the Wobblies. Swapping the hard hat for the bowler hat, the legacy of surrealism in the UK has been more to bankroll English eccentricity). Bigged up as at least the equivalent of Archimedes devastatingly effective A frame, the Copenhagen recycling example of alternative geo-engineering that also would stop climate change was kept under wraps and even Ms Klein accepted the grandiose assurances of its creator John Jordan that it truly was an unstoppable machine and which merely served to increase its mythic potency. That collapsed on the very day it was used and even the media ignored it.
The “irresistible new machine of resistance” was the product of the “Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination” based, at least temporarily, in Bristol’s Arnolfini gallery with an ever so naughty reputation for exhibiting such risqué millionaire ‘street’ artists like Banksy. John Jordan was until 2003 a senior lecturer in art at Sheffield’s Hallam University and a few years back whilst he was spouting shit, we were shovelling shit for months on end in the cellars of Meersbrook, a short bus ride from the university, a far more honourable and instructive occupation than lecturing in art, though not earning a twentieth of the wage. As usual we would break off and discuss everything from the miners’ strike (we were staying in the forming mining community of Dinnington) to Picasso and ecology with a range and depth that would far surpass anything going down in the art dept of Hallam University. Jordan had been profoundly influenced by Joseph Beuys, a crap forerunner of today’s wall-to-wall installation art and had been the co director from 1987 to 1995 of the interdisciplinary art group Platform before going on to co-found Reclaim the Streets. We have remarked in the films on the Dingy Skipper (and we were the first to note the presence of this threatened butterfly close to Sheffield’s city centre ) how Reclaim the Streets had its moments, dressing up enabling demonstrators to conceal pneumatic drills etc.
However we did underestimate the extent of the theatricalisation even then taking place, Jordan having set up as early as 2002 the Clandestine Rebel Clown Army, (CIRCA) becoming an increasingly predictable and deadly boring part of the “anti capitalist movement”. (The benign behaviour of the Danish riot police towards clowns posing in front of them for the press and the Guantanomo like treatment of those arrested just about says it all). Perhaps Jordan took his kew from the alternative comedians Red Nose Day and, even further back, John Fox’s Welfare State, an avant-garde circus troupe that initially plied the Yorkshire Dales in the early to late 1970s. As regards the latter there is a major difference, John Fox from the very start vehemently rejecting the Situationst critique, accusing it of “throwing the baby out with the bath water” and having no further truck with it, not even in terms of loan words. Jordan however has steeped himself in the critique but in order to take it back into art, prudently not mentioning, at least for the time being, the fraught issue of the English Situationsts, citing instead the far less tricky matter of Ad Busters, Heatwave, The Angry Brigade and “the ultimate recuperation of the Sex Pistols” (from an interview with Naomi Klein for an anarchy mag). Reclaim the Streets was accompanied by the following preamble: “The idea was not to make political art but to apply creative thinking and practise to radical politics(?!), to reject representation in favour of transformation”. Even more redolent of the radical thinking that characterized the late 1960s are the claims that act as back-up to Jordan’s forthcoming book Paths through Utopia which “explores anti-capitalist and ecological living experiments in Europe. This project will eventually give rise to setting up a new ecological community based on the principles of permaculture that overcomes art with radical forms of everyday life”.
Jordan is preparing a film of the book and early in 2010 an ad appeared on the website of the Laboratory of the Insurrectionary Imagination seeking the services of an experienced video editor having “ideally worked in both genres of documentary and fiction”. It is the cool professionalism of the ad that is so off putting; evidently what really counts is a commitment to a specialized role and a career structure, not enthusiasm, an impassioned hatred of capitalism and amateurish expertise. Jordan worked with Naomi Klein on The Take, a film which explores self management and direct democracy experiments in Argentina. A brief clip is available on the internet but then you need a credit card to buy the rest. Situationst influence obviously does not extend to anti-copyright and in case you think we are just as hypocritical, anyone can download our films for free. Though we are definitely not career radicals (restraining orders far more likely to come our way than money orders), the same cannot be said of Jordan and Klein and it’s a stance that makes all the difference in the world. Their careers overlap (and we are talking about careers here), their brand of syndicated radicalism and penchant for prime time TV interviews in the case of Ms Klein, a reflection of these extremely conservative times exemplified by a failure to ever go that extra mile which is the real bridgehead to the future. So is it really all that surprising Ms Klein, once reassured by Jordan, a person she greatly admires, would rush to suspend her disbelief. So like a religious nut and against her more generally anchored self) she flew off on a tangent, hoping against hope these born-again Jean Tinguely type machine, would prove capable of breaching capital’s defenses, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
These “irresistible machines” designed to abolish the state were paid for out of state revenue. Are we seriously to believe the state will also fund its real adversaries and not just the irritating critics it has long known how to deal with and contain? Tom Trevor, director of the Arnolfini gallery, obviously thought there was something to said for the former case, pointing out that ten years ago public money would not have been used for such a project, adding “but for now the state is funding anti-state activity, which is very interesting”. But he also admitted if the machines were to be used in Bristol, the funding would probably stop as it “would be difficult to keep all out stakeholders on board”. Perhaps the reason funding was maintained was because the very resistible machines and the rest of the crap that made the trip to Copenhagen were, in the end, no more harmful than Banksy and Brit Art and basically good for business, the success of Banksy and Co considerably diminishing the challenge this pioneering risk capital venture would, but for them, have posed ten years ago. The Jordan/Klein duo and their many deluded followers were the only people thinking otherwise, the shrewder cynicism having won the day before battle even commenced.
COP15 was a victory for the pacifying function of art not protest. And it also was a case of the converted preaching to the converted, there being nothing as remotely stirring and unforeseen as the longshoreman who declared that after Seattle 1999 he would no longer look on redwood trees as waiting to be sawn down, milled and turned into planks for patios. Seattle marked a beginning, COP15 an end, and the need for a major rethink was immediately apparent in the days following its failure. But in the last analysis it amounts to yet more of the same, whether its Jim Hansen, (head of NASA’s Goddard Institute and one of the first scientists to bring global warming to public attention)looking for a “greater politics” and charismatic world leader able to grasp there is “no room for the compromises that rule the world of politicians”, or John Sauven Director of Greenpeace arguing that “it is now evident that global warming will require a radically different model of politics than the one on display in Copenhagen”. The calls for citizens action proposed by Johan Hari in an article titled Its Up to Us (The Independent 21st Dec 2009) willshare the same fate and rather than bottom up replacing top down through the creation of new executive organs, will merely end up being a pressure group on parliament and just as powerless as anything on show in COP15.
But Copenhagen has primed the hopes of the world’s eco artists with the promise of endless funding and like carbon trading is clearly a growth sector. Though the latter has come in for increased criticism as an ineffective, free market solution to climate change which has done nothing to curb the growth in CO2 emissions, almost certainly there will be a revival of carbon trading as the only “viable” face saving measure left after Copenhagen. Much hot air will be expanded on the need to lower caps on CO2 emissions and many more carbon millionaires will eventually be created as a result. But in the aftermath of Copenhagen, carbon dropped to a six-month low, temporarily stalling plans for further ‘green’ energy production (which includes nuclear power as well as carbon capture storage) that is part subsidised by the renewables obligation mechanism which raises money from within the carbon trading market to offset the massive upfront costs.
But, Post Copenhagen, will the production of eco art now be capped? The motivation behind its expanded production will undoubtedly be economic but the lesson coming out of Copenhagen is that eco art is henceforth fatally compromised, an acceptable diversion that is tolerated and encouraged by the police and that is every bit a social opiate as light entertainment. In fact, in terms of the climate it is several degrees worse and the drivelling pretence that it is saving the world will become absolute as it seeks to shunt all future protest into a limitless gallery/performance space in which nature will be remade into art and the future of life will henceforth be posed as a question of art. As the Danish police told a Guardian reporter “peaceful protest and theatrical stunts are welcome”.
Step outside this restricted, controlled space and the police were waiting, armed with new powers of pre-emptive arrest. Besides even “peaceful protesters” weren’t immune and many were detained because they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. On one occasion 1000 people were arrested and all but 13 released without being charged. A protester from Germany described it as “like Guantanamo when you see it – you have a cold, solid floor and four mesh walls and a mesh ceiling and outside cops walking around with dogs”. Though blind to the scale of the cultural bombardment and even more that it could well be a foretaste of things to come, N Klein (Memo to Danes the Guardian 14th December 2009) did broach, though avoided developing, the question whether there was not something inherently controlling to design (in this context, specifically Danish design), this styled bulwark of counter insurgency finding its fitting expression in the lack of police toleration for anything that was not in good taste and planned.
Copenhagen just happened to be also the greatest show on earth in which photo opportunities jostled with an interminable display of exhibits, stunts and performance art. For a brief few days in late December 2009 Planet Earth became Planet Art and death came from a 1000 exhibits as much as from the inevitable failure of politics. On rare, very rare occasions, even the press couldn’t help but wonder “if a city square here (that)doesn’t feature a tent, a photo display a huge and unconvincing modernist sculpture ----- feels left out” and if “any of this has any impact”? The Guardian reporter (11th December 2009) would have liked to have put this up for peer review by holding an art free COP15 in another city. But one thing’s for sure: despite the obvious differences, Seattle was never remotely like this and in the ensuing ten years there has been this inexorable drift into theatricalisation. How, we wondered, had this come about and how, in the process, has nature become art? Clearly this did not come out of the blue (today’s fashionable colour of choice, denoting “protest”) and has a long history to it.
Sometime during the world historical farce that was COP15 one of us opened, not entirely by chance, a copy of The Gay Science. In no time at all a dimly remembered passage was found, unpretentiously titled “How things will become ever more ‘artistic’ in Europe”. Nietzsche, as early as 1882, had put his finger on a tendency, which must have sounded completely preposterous a decade after the Paris Commune and industry only just beginning to get into its stride in a handful of countries in Europe and North America. The phenomenon Nietzsche is attempting to get to grips with is a direct consequence of the industrial revolution and the “unalterable tendency to constantly accelerating change” (Marx). However though Nietzsche does not clearly name the industrial revolution as the culprit, his prophetic insight is still truly startling and came a century too early. So more’s the pity he never read a word of Marx, for in this passage the division of labour is scripted and we bit-part actors commanded to perform a role, a role we molly coddle like it was an organic part of ourselves and poles apart from being a mere cog in a machine and the take it or leave it attitude the latter gives rise to. In Nietzsche’s schema the working class becomes a working class of potential actors. The problem of the ‘actor’ and the ‘theatre’ increasingly obsessed Nietzsche, leading him to perceive ever more clearly that the theatre and the theatrical arts were overflowing their traditional limits, mainly thanks to the overwhelming presence of Wagner, Europe’s first stadium rocker. In the process drama was becoming democratized as everyday life and ‘nature’. “Considered more deeply, the role has actually become character, and art, nature”.
The adoption of a role (a “so-called occupation”) is economic in origin and arises from the need to make a living. However we are so taken over by the role that we become deeply dependant mimics “eternally playing hide and seek” that one cannot help wondering if Nietzsche had by now become familiar with Bates’s theory of butterfly mimicry(1862), for allusions to butterflies are many and varied in his work. But whereas some butterflies imitate poisonous ones in order to increase their survival rate, we become self-poisoners craving release from our unexpressed, unfulfilled self in yet greater mimicry, though in truth one can legitimately point to other passages in Nietzsche’s work that contradict this interpretation. On the other hand we become junked on roles and performance, unable to ditch them because life without them is just too horrible to bear. This ‘existential’ conundrum is truer now than it has ever been and goes a long way to explain the vice-like grip of performance art, a grip that will tighten the more humanity faces ultimate ruin and scratch orchestras strike up in the planetary Auschwitz. Though typically rejecting social revolution, Nietszche is in no doubt when this happens we are “no longer material for society” unable finally to suppress a yearning for something more durable “a ‘stone’ – and above all not an actor!” This reading of Nietzsche reinforces our fears and to our mind eco protest is increasingly all eye-catching prose, mein and gesture and nature films a feast of the senses as if deliberately choreographed to accord with an “endless melody” of discontinuous narratives, rather than the other way round. As fiction takes command, our entire life is in mortal danger of becoming a looped succession of random narratives we can dip in and out of at will, but which we cannot escape it is so ubiquitous.
In Copenhagen protest was largely smothered by art and everywhere one looked the eye met with an entertaining, diversionary spectacle. Just two examples from many, many more: on day four, The Guardian reported “a human rainstorm swept through the Bella Centre transforming themselves into raindrops by beating chests and making whooshing noises clicking and whistling”. The stunt was to show solidarity with African nations that were already fighting for survival because of climate change. The African delegates no doubt welcomed it because at best it might marginally have strengthened their hand. But despite the placards that read “we will not die quietly”, as time went on even the African delegates had to admit that theatrical stunts were useless and that only a show-stopper like a Seattle style confrontation outside would really come to their aid.
On another occasion environmental activists from Action Aid ‘invaded’ the conference. Dressed in red suits and wearing trilbies and shades, they were meant to be “climate debt agents”, tally men collecting on behalf of developing countries who are the victims, not the perpetrators, of climate change. It was the photogenic appeal of what could easily have been a “Madness” influenced way of plugging a simplistic, anti imperialist, message that caught the eye of the media. Stage effects overrode content and further explanations were deemed of little importance in the tag lines accompanying the press photos next day. As usual, it was the makeshift stuff improvised on the spur of the moment that captured the imagination. A tatty banner read “COP15 Business as usual”. Someone had written on the palm of their hand “live simply so others can simply live”. An office worker held up an off the cuff warning, “I don’t want to swim to work”. And after the police had done their work, someone took a telling shot of a trampled placard that read “There is no planet B” (a piss take on PM Brown’s “there is no plan B”), the square now deserted except for a line of riot vans drawn up in the far distance.
The extent to which visual spectacle is set to clean up protest was unmistakable on the London demo organised by the SCCC to coincide with COP15. Demonstrators were expected to descend on parliament to take part, as the Trotskyist Socialist Worker (28th November 2009) put it, “in The Wave to create dramatic visual protest that will surround parliament”. Rather than demonstrators we were made to feel part of a troupe and when one of us refused to be daubed with blue paint he was, in effect, shown the stage door. We wanted to explain that there had been a colour shift and that blue was now replacing the white of the YBAs – but you knew it would not be remotely understood. As far as the conscripting aesthetic behind the demo was concerned, we were just some up-tight, unfashionable old muthas who, by staging our own personal actors’ strike, refused to play our parts.
Above: Examples of the theatricalisation of protest
Chapter 3. COP15: Art not Oil and the end of the World Show
The idiocies of journalists and a little bit of unknown history / The YBAs fictitious capital / the financial shock tactics of the White Cubists and some feeble interventions / the blue, white and green of eco-artists….
The December 2009 Copenhagen talking cure for capitalism’s bad conscience has only resulted in the flimsiest of draft treaties on the reduction of CO2 emissions, if that. However it is proving to be the seminal international art/performance event of “our final century” and that is resulting, almost overnight, in a massive reorientation of the art world; the biggest there has ever been in fact. Including Naomi Klein there is virtually no one who is not duped by Planet Art which also means journalist mad Bunting (the Guardian 3rd December 2009: the Art of Survival on the Royal Academy's Earth exhibition) and Johan Hari (see the incredulous trash he wrote praising the same exhibition in the Independent of December 9th 2009). To borrow Bunting's phrase - and turn it right sight up - the “art of survival” can only be that of extinction, the dinosaur phase of art being the business deal of the century for artists. As the scramble for grants, internships, local authority sponsorship and more, including exhibitions, gallery contracts (and eventually the top auction houses) hots up in tandem with the climate on the Planet of the Artists, art’s presence will become all pervasive and inhibit protest by inducing a terminal passivity, albeit with the emphasis on interactivity. We will perish not just from global warming but an excess of performance, viewing and audience participation. And as the earth burns up, some amongst this six degrees overkill of eco-artists will become end-of-the-world millionaires (but not much more) as they allegedly raise our consciousness and ‘beautify’ our imminent death.
Significantly, Hari in his Independent article excludes Tracy Emin from this new hall of fame and rightly pans her pathetic contribution to the Earth exhibition. The crude, money-grubbing Young British Artists leftovers (henceforth referred to as the YBAs), for which there was never going to be enough money in the world to satisfy their greed, are completely out of step with the spirit of the times. Unable to reinvent themselves, they look grubby and tarnished as if, choked by their avarice, they are teetering on the edge of a breakdown. Their covetous, threadbare, irony - really an invention of a media in search of subtleties where there are none - belongs to yesterday and will no longer pass muster. A few months into the credit crises Tracy Emin’s alleged self mockery was acclaimed by The Observer’s art critic (19/10/08 as a way of negotiating the crises, her photographic self portrait entitled “I’ve got it all” showing her squatting, legs apart and money, not a baby, issuing from her cunt. But so far no one has seen fit to read in it a midwifery of quantitative easing, gynaecology of deficit spending. Seeing the YBAs were the darlings of New Labour’s credit free–for-all, the chancellor, Alistair Darling, could easily, in the downturn, have nationalised the image and prevented Emin switching sides to the Tories and becoming a tax exile. Allowing Emin to look like a money bags dowager and hypocrite as she handed in a personal request to No. 10 to save a Titian for the nation, was like pissing on New Labour’s cultural past, as if they are now obliged to cold shoulder ‘their artists’ as they have ‘their bankers’.
Come pay back time, Emin’s image could have been inflected by the Exchequer to mean something different, as the £176 billion bill for saving capitalism in the UK lands on the doormat. Politically slicked up into portraying post partum depression, leavened by self deprecating humour plus the offer of sex and renamed “Take it all” rather than “I’ve got it all”, it could pass as a biblical critique of money by suggesting that, since money hasn’t made you happy, then why not give to the poor and hand everything you have over to the Inland Revenue! In this scenario money is here to stay but the persistence and unparalleled depth of the crises, combined with a realization that recurrent, and accelerating, fictive bubbles have only resulted in unprecedented levels of personal breakdown, isolation, fragmentation and loss of everything we held most dear, could lead to a more thoroughgoing critique of money than anything hitherto. It will far transcend the saintly injunction “too give everything away thou hast” which actually is predicated on the continued existence of political economy. However, enough! We are not going to do New Labour’s job for them.
And Hirst’s latest exhibition of paintings bombed and his bringing in of identical twins into his exhibition to sit around as additional extras (his only way of acknowledging nobodies like ourselves without naming the web url where all would be revealed) was powerless to save him. In late 2008 he had said “I’ve got a bit exhausted and need to reinvent myself”. Unable to carve a credible, new role for himself in these drastically changed times, he is flailing around, looking more distracted than depressed. Envy of the success of others belonging to their ilk ruled the lives of the YBAs. As his final exhibit, one of them, Angus Fairhurst, hanged himself from a tree in the remote Scottish highlands after climbing a ladder he had made himself. Looking at the greater ‘success’ his contemporaries had as artists he found his own more modest ‘success’ a kind of torture. “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it” and that swinging body and improvised ladder is easily a far more haunting and telling image of what the YBAs were about than a pickled shark.
Despite appearances to the contrary, the sum of what unites the YBAs and eco artists is more than what divides them, a change of venue from The White Cube to the RSA (The Royal Society of Arts and a very influential presence in COP15) reflecting a shift in ideology (and symbolic colour shift from white to blue) rather than anything more fundamental. Behind both there lurks the spectre of revolution but particularly so in the unbelievable history of whiteness following the events of May 1968 and that eventually turns into the cultural accompaniment to neo liberalism and end of history scenarios. The tabula rasa of Mallarme and Malevich, and all they stand for in terms of revolutionary overthrow, are turned back upon themselves in a development that beggars belief. No one to date has even remotely brought out the full significance of this development but which, on reflection, is blindingly obvious. Blue merely picks up from where white left off, the latter having done the job of erasing from memory all knowledge of insurrection that began with three essays published in the abominable Art Forum journal in 1976. These were later made into a book, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space.
Appearing in America its greatest influence by far was in the UK, Jay Jopling, the old Etonian son of the Chief Whip and Minister of Agriculture in the Thatcher Government opening a gallery called The White Cube in 1993. Marx in the 19th century had called England "the despot of the world market”: by degrees and in tandem with the Saatchi brothers, art as an antidote to insurrection would substitute for that lost industrial hegemony, Britain swamping other markets with its conceptual product this time. The submerging of COP15 beneath eco art, much of it ‘Made in Britain’, at the cost of protest shows just how influential, and insidious, this export is and which merely forms a part of a more general so-called creative, art market. Its share of the export market probably does not monetarily match that of pharmaceuticals and armaments but as a successful rebranding exercise it easily outweighs them, Britain plc becoming identified world wide with art product like it was the country of a new renaissance and therefore still the centre of the universe.
Inside the White Cube provided reaction with bogus intellectual tools and was quickly seized on for that reason, weaker versions springing up everywhere even as late as 2000 when Tate Modern, The Architectural Association, The Institute of Contemporary Arts, etc funded a wretched publication simply called “Whiteness”, women and race, in a desperate bid to save art from terminal bankruptcy, now pitted against the “patriarchal white ideology” of the gallery space.
The original trend setter was written close enough to May 1968 never to risk mentioning it. A couple of installations by Daniel Burren substitute for it and we are pretty much left to guess the rest, the first when Burren sealed off the Salon de Mai in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in April 1968 and the second when he repeated the empty gesture a few months later in October 1968 at the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan. But the world shaking events of ‘68 are barely hinted at, still less the attack upon culture, which was a major feature of it and to a lesser extent in Italy of the “Hot Autumn” that was to follow May 1968 in France. These events are not even dissed, they are simply passed over in dread silence as if mere mention of them would be sufficient to bring on a revolution and raise the devil. An entire chapter Gallery as Context is devoted to two of Marcel Duchamp’s exhibits in which the gallery space becomes object, his corpse here resurrected to do the job of reaction under the guise of revolution several years before that of Friedmann and the Chicago School of Economists.
Inside the White Cube is of major importance in one respect in that it anticipates how avant-garde culture was to replace arms as the favored weapon of counter revolution. But it took Britain to make Duchamp an icon of reaction by institutionalizing him. Lacking a radical avant-garde tradition it was easier to get away with it here than in most European countries. The supreme irony must be how Britain has proved so successful at reprocessing and then exporting this recycled cultural revisionism to countries that really did have a radical avant-garde tradition. If any were needed this is one more sign that the country is unable to relinquish being the world policeman of reaction, its achievement in promoting neo liberal doctrines, especially as regards the former soviet bloc, second to no other country, including the USA.
It may be pushing it somewhat, but are we entitled to see in the Saatchi brother’s famous late 1970s poster “Labour isn’t Working” which shows a long queue of the unemployed winding across a featureless white landscape, an anticipation of The White Cube? Commissioned by Mrs. Thatcher, it suggests the beginnings of a reactionary politicisation of Malevich’s White on White. The Saatchi ad agency had been founded in 1970 and by 1986 it was the largest ad agency in the world, Jay Jopling being Charles Saatchi’s favourite dealer. Jopling quickly became a brand dealer trading in publicity stunts and innovative marketing like when he got Tracy Emin to doodle sketches of herself wanking on TV and then for him to jump in front of the cameras and say “you can buy an Emin drawing at my gallery for under £3000”.
But his White Cube gallery was the opposite of marketed subversion, the white, featureless, windowless walls there to intimidate and enforce exclusion and social exclusivity. Emin’s headline grabbing, lucrative prank of 1999 was preceded by another two years previously that landed its perpetrator with a ten months prison sentence. In 1997 a Russian artist Aleksandr Brener bravely painted a dollar sign on Malevich’s White on White in the Stejdlik Museum in Amsterdam. In his defence he said it was a political act protesting the role of money in art, which really was a wishy washy defence and unworthy of the deed. As a result it never received anything like the publicity it deserved and it was thought no more of. If it had been accompanied by a relevant critique it could have quite easily created an eye-opening storm which would have sharpened subversive minds everywhere. The same criticism applies to Pierre Pinocelli, now 77, and who has a thing about Duchamp’s Urinal. In 1993 he was jailed for a month and fined £35,000 for urinating in this so-called masterpiece (it was meant to be the very anthesis of a masterpiece) and writing “Dada” on it but which was peanuts when compared with the £262,000 fine imposed on him after deliberately chipping the Duchamp Urinal in the Pompidou Centre. But to then bring in a china restorer to repair the artifact was utterly ludicrous and entirely out of keeping with the spirit of the ready made. Pinocelli could not capitalize on this obvious contradiction by lucidly arguing that to call a thing art today immediately increases its value (given that the absolutely essential machinery of publicity is in place) and further relating this undoubted fact to either the bubble phase of capitalism and an open ended critique of political economy which puts the ready made in the correct perspective of a free creativity, something Duchamp fell a long way short of ever doing. Sadly Pinocelli’s notoriety merely increases the selling price of his paintings (some of which have good titles like Auschwitz–by-the-Sea) and, though there is no denying his sincerity, his shock tactics, though much preferable to Jopling’s, leads in a roundabout way to often quite hefty increases in the value of his art that he can then profit from. Finally, a word of caution: we do need to engage in many more provocative actions but they must now be armed with a relevant critique and more along the theoretical lines we are elaborating. If there have to be prison sentences let them be stunningly worthwhile prison sentences for actions that sweep away all the nonsense we are forced to consume.
The function of The White Cube is also to create a sense of being beyond time as though what’s on display is free from the ravages of time and decay, its monetary value become immortal, like a stock market frozen at its peak for all eternity. Just as this ultra space is timeless so also is the world that gave it birth, the white magic of the white cube symbolizing not just a certain phase of capitalism but its completeness and resistance to change. It has taken just two years for all of this to unravel and it is unlikely ever to return, eco art taking up from where it left off by adapting to the changed circumstances, a more state orientated political economy of art just starting to become visible.
But before we leave The White Cube never to return to it, perhaps it’s worth ferreting out the likely origin of the faint whiff of radicalism present in the pages of Inside the White Cube composed by the writer and installation artist, Brian O’Doherty. He mentions Baudelaire’s scabrous introduction To the Bourgeoisie written for the salon of 1846 suggesting he had been reading T.J. Clarke’s books on Courbet and his times, The Image of the People and The Absolute Bourgeois. These books, written by a former member of the International Situationists, also appeared a wee bit before Inside the White Cube and though paying a heavily disguised lip service to the most advanced critique of the time, were written with the sole purpose of securing a good job and were an act of betrayal from start to finish. Courbet was a safe bet, a representational artist for Clarke to flex his art historical ‘radicalism’ on without ruffling too many feathers. Had he chosen, at that still critical point in history, to write on a more relevant figure, say, Duchamp for example, which O’Doherty does from the perspective of a renewal of art, he would have risked opening a can of worms and been forced to condemn all the tired repeats (in fact far from being worn out were, incredible though it sounds, only just commencing) and confront the question of the way beyond art opened up by the events of May 1968. This would not have landed him with a plum professor’s job in a top American university and when he finally did come to deal with the avant-garde in Farewell to an Idea it had become safe to do so, all radical critiques of art having fled the scene long ago.
What came to replace it was a harmless version of the avant-garde, a neo avant-garde from which all radical content and, above all, radical potential, was expunged. However, this watered down nothingness has meant no other art movement in history has come anywhere close to matching its extraordinary global reach, no mountain top, impenetrable jungle, remote desert or war zone safe from incursion, and that has to be linked with the desperate attempt to resolve capitalism’s chronic crises through economic globalization, whereby the on-going supremacy of industrial capitalism has so-often been hived-off to the former ‘under-developed’ world where labour power is much cheaper allowing a frenzy of speculation to burst forth in the highly-developed world the likes of which we’ve never known. The leftovers of art have played an enormous role in this hyping of appearances through a web of complex financial derivatives that industrial capital also now deploys to its advantage.
Following on from this, the space/time of eco art aspires to an even greater global presence, global emptiness and global self-importance and abundance by claiming places that are even more out-of-the-way for art, but principally to secure them against insurrection and the asking of too many leading questions. But meanwhile T. J. Clarke is quid’s in all round though made bitter as hell as a result. Not able to follow that road, we were saved from a fate worse than death, the life of a worm (a typically British fate for anyone with a smidgeon of principle) being infinitely preferable - and which suggests there once was (but not any more) a powerful link, not only here but elsewhere, between exclusion, entomology and a fascination with small organisms!
There has also been a colour shift and where white once held sway there is now blue. This shift has been accelerated by the credit crises and the build up to COP15. However the significance of blue has its avant-garde precedents just as does white, Mallarme haunted by both in roughly equal measure. Closer to our time there is Yves Klein who in 1960 exhibited in Paris an empty white gallery which he called The Void, through painting the facade of the street outside blue, serving up blue cocktails and even hiring a blue Garde Republicaine to stand at the entrance! (Although not the CRS he was still a cop!). The very last person ever to make a show of himself, Mallarme is in a different league to Klein and should not be mentioned in the same breath. And so it should come as no surprise that it is International Klein Blue, Klein’s trademark that resonates in the eco movement, not the retiring blue and white pregnancies of Mallarme.
There has to be an overlap with The Blue Man Group also, which in recent year has played in all of the world’s major cities. This Blue Man Group is a spectacular example of the way in which the avant-garde has successfully broken out of the confines of the esoteric and become mass entertainment. As back up, the group’s intellectual entrepreneurs have drawn up an historical compendium of significant artistic figures that have influenced the group, these including Jackson Pollock, Klein, the earth artist Smithson and drummer Keith Moon of The Who, named for pouring paint on his drums not for his music. In all it amounts to an extremely sophisticated piece of recuperation and such is its unquestioned persuasive power that the origin of The Wave protest, a world wide event organised to coincide with COP15, may well lay in a children’s exhibit called Making Waves the group staged in New York. The group’s present owner is Joop van der Ende, a Dutch billionaire who was also responsible for dreaming up the scripted, acted out, TV’s Big Brother, verite scenarios. Prior to becoming the group’s manager, The Ende had been active in real estate development using what he called “living city property performance”, a technique of false contestation and intervention Urban Splash had employed in the UK when redeveloping Fort Dunlop in Birmingham and which used to be the former headquarters of the tire giant. Sadly it will be surprising if even one ecologist will fully grasp the connection between growing theatricalisation and deindustrialization or see that the eco movement is a major player in promoting this tendency.
Finally ‘blue’ is the blue of the blue planet and the photo of ‘earth rise’ taken by the first men to step foot on the moon in 1969. In the hagiography of eco movements far too much has been made of this so called talismanic image as though this is where it all started from. But to us it was little more than just another cheesy, throw away, image on the front of the National Geographical magazine and meant precious little when put beside the inspiring photos of seized riot police shields that had been piled high by insurgents on Battipaglia railway station in southern Italy around the same time. The moon landing was an exercise in diversion designed to avert the gaze from away from an earth going up in smoke by substituting a fabricated image of earth made to appear benign and tranquil from deep space. There is simply no getting away from it, the image had deeply reactionary implications and the way the eco movement has since come to revere it means they have still much to learn about the way in which the media is used. This is the major reason why climate and earth scientists are looking to eco artists to provide publicity in the guise of a telling image whose paterfamilias has to be ‘earth rise’. However in doing so they are naively bowing to a development that goes right back to the origins of the YBAs in the early 1990s and their promotion in the hands of the Saatchi Bothers, Jay Jopling and Larry Gargosian.
Publicity, publicity always publicity was the watchword of this sales crew and they would go to practically any length to get it. Much like a Saatchi or Benetton advertising campaign, promo had the single purpose of provoking a response. When in 2001 Charles Saatchi moved his gallery into the former home of the GLC (which Thatcher had abolished and therefore also was a snub directed at the last shreds of social democracy and which the YBAs were only too happy to go along with), Saatchi on the opening night had Spencer Tunick arrange for 80 naked volunteers to lay down on the stairs in front of the gallery to greet those arriving. Combined with the celebrity guests, it made the front pages of every UK newspaper. With each successful publicity stunt the artists’ value grew, for it increasingly was the personality not the product that carried the price tag. When we actually view the artist as a branded product this is what we are referring to. On the other hand, it was in the branded salesrooms of Christie’s and Sotheby’s where, selling their body parts in a manner of speaking, they made the kind of easy money King Midas might well have envied. Art critics had little to do with inflating the value of their reputation, though they could always be relied on to provide an extra dose of pretentious froth. An unprecedented degree of industrial peace having cast its pall over the country enforced by the law and police, the rottweillers of the yellow press, no longer able to hound wildcat strikers to death, were left with far fewer prey and had to make do with paedophiles and the YBAs, thus ironically increasing the latters vast fortunes. When Mayor Guiliani of New York threatened reprisals against the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 for displaying the Sensations show first premiered at the Royal Academy, Hirst said Guiliani had done him a “fucking favour” by “putting another nought on the end of all my prices”. And when Hirst’s much publicized In the Name of God went on sale with a starting price in excess of £50 million, even making it to the front page of the Financial Times, another YBA chancer, Dinos Chapman, (who fancies himself as an intellectual even though just another goon) called the diamond encrusted skull “a work of genius - not the art, the marketing”. Germaine Greer would stupidly endorse this opinion, and if a supposedly ‘media savvy’ person like her can so easily be duped by the machinery of publicity then what chance do lab bound scientists have, given that their knowledge of artistic chicanery couldn’t fill a petri-dish.
There is another side to this sorry saga that on first reckoning appears unrelated to the fame school of media hype and manipulation. The rise of big science has shrunk the scientific ego to a fraction of its former self: in other words science has become ‘collective’. As the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, says in Our Final Century (2003) “Einstein has a specially honoured place in the scientific pantheon because he is one of the few exceptions” though fittingly adding “not even Einstein left a distinctive personal imprint to match that of the greatest writers and composers”. Become a mere cog in a machine, climate and earth scientists not only envy the ability of artists to generate publicity (a response that has been shaped in toto by the way in which the YBAs have been marketed) they also believe that in their presence they are touched by a greater than themselves and which compensates for their own ‘mediocrity’. As a shameless media whore, the artist through the ‘power of images’ can do what the scientists cannot do - this at any rate is now the prevailing, virtually impregnable, orthodoxy, one summed up by Simon Boxall, the science coordinator for Cape Farewell Media: “In public messages, I am able to use the imagery of Cape Farewell to get my message across. Our journals are only read by 1000 people. We need to get the message across to a wider public. If we can get our message into the media, we’re talking to 100,000 people or 1 million people”. Boxall, the scientist, is merely echoing the opinion of Cape Farewell’s founder, David Buckland, the artist, when he wrote “one salient image, sculpture or event can speak louder than volumes of scientific data and engage the public’s imagination in an immediate way”. (Cape Farewell’s name will keep cropping up throughout the text: founded in 2001 the founding manifesto states the aim was to bring “together leading artists , writers, scientists, educators and media for a series of expeditions into the wild and challenging High Arctic”). What bullshit!
However one thing is for certain, eco artists have not been able to generate anything like the degree of publicity, and shock, the puppet YBAs were able to do, thanks to the adept string-pulling of their marketing masters. Eco artists are betraying the hopes placed in them and so far have been unable to invest science data with ‘subversion’ and make it headline news. To date there is no green Saatchi, no moral advertising agency or tabloid press that has proved capable of selling moral earnestness as shock and ‘subversion’. This really is asking the impossible and so what we now have instead are moral crusades tailored to suit middle class tastes like the Citizens Ethics campaign that originated in the USA and has been taken up here by Mad Bunting. Recalling the Victorian moral reform societies, today it is entirely in keeping with her equally bankrupt promotions of eco art exhibitions mentioned above and elsewhere. We should not be surprised at The Guardian newspaper getting in on the act for Citizens Ethics is right up its street, having also sponsored the 10:10 campaign, even raffling an original Picasso for those prepared to sign up in Tate Modern and commit to reducing their carbon footprint. And when Channel 4 announced on 23rd October 2009 the coming Copenhagen conference it did so in Tate Modern, thus already accenting the art not oil theme which pretty much is what COP15 became a platform for.
Radical science (for ecological science ultimately is that) is still unable to find its authentic and necessarily revolutionary praxis and seemingly is as far as ever from achieving its goal and therefore can only find consolation in the illusion of eco art as a more effective type of agency. Had the scientific radicals of the late 1960s (and there were a surprising number of them) been able to cling onto their lives and sanity, they could have taken the critique of science and art to a much higher stage and we now would have been in a much better shape to scorn the mockery of radicalism that is Cape Farewell, Tipping Point, The Hub etc (see further on in the text for a fuller elucidation). But the most fatal counter revolution in all history was so fast, insidious and almost below the threshold of consciousness, that it blew lives apart within a matter of months, the few scientific brains that were left over from those days scarce able to articulate their revolt in the manner that it demanded. The depressing result is that all potentially revolutionary protocol regarding these fundamental questions has ceased to exist.
Above: Spontaneous, of-the-cuff responses and far better than the art
Chapter 4. COP15: Nature as Art
The New Naturalist Library/Nature as art in Kant/Re-imaging the world/Industrial dereliction/The end of roles and nothingness /Theatricalisation of humanity/Land art &Icteric/Romanticism& De Quincey
We now wish to make a short aside on the New Naturalist Library, a remarkable publishing venture that commenced in 1945 with E.B. Ford’s incomparable book called Butterflies and which by the mid 1990s had 118 titles to its name. Recently, Richard Mabey has written a long article on the series in The Guardian’s G2 which containing his usual excellently polished prose - coming up with half ideas - but only put in place to deflect radical conclusions, thus deliberately failing in urgent critical analysis. The reason for this digression will become obvious three paragraphs later in a discussion on Kant as the New Naturalist Library forms a bridgehead between the post Second World War “religion of nature” to “nature as art” whose undertow was so much in evidence at COP15.
Peter Marren published Nature Conservation in 2002 in the New Naturalist series having written prior to that The New Naturalists which came out in 1995, a revised edition appearing in 2005. Since then he has brought out in 2009 a book called The Art of the New Naturalists that retails at a blistering 70 quid and that deals with “the marvellous dust wrappers which are a key part of the books attraction”. But not to us they weren’t, and, as schoolboys, it was their colour plates of specimens and marvels of mainly black and white ¼ plate photography that attracted (and still do), never giving the dust jackets a second glance. Marren notes “the empathy with the subject that lay behind the best of these pictures” for they were informed by a mind that knew what it was looking at and which clearly showed in the results and therefore world’s apart from today’s gaudy, technically accomplished, snapshots that just ignorantly advertise nature at its most out of the ordinary and eye catching, though generally it’s the humdrum rule that has most to tell us. Here image is everything, meaning nothing. One searches in vain for any mention of Walter Benjamin views on the democratizing, levelling function of photography. This permitted an outstanding biologist like Julian Huxley to take photos which are not only more striking, but also more telling, than the more recent ones taken with a SLR (Single Lens Reflex) by the dendrologist Oliver Rackham in which meaning tends to get lost in the undergrowth.
The number of pages on The New Naturalist photographers is about half that devoted to the New Naturalist dust covers, revealing a pathetic reverence for the past of art, a kingdom over which the mystery of individual genius, and mastery of craft, rules despite neither being of any relevance to today’s world, except as a reactionary myth that biologises the great art of the past by ultimately believing one day the Mozart gene will be found and then made available for implantation in the embryonic young of brain dead, aspirational parents. Obviously Marren has yet to have his head fried by conceptual art like has happened to Mabey and now also to Hoare. After his book Leviathan came out, Hoare was approached by Angela Cockayne “maker of provocative sculptures and installations” (you must be kidding!) to do a film with her in which he was easily persuaded to make a conceptual fool of himself by dressing up in a purple cassock embroidered with a prose poem. (The film Dominium was premiered at Tate St Ives on the 21st Nov 2009).The frontispiece of The New Naturalists is a painting showing four, stiffly posed, new naturalists in the field, among them the botanist Tansley and the great lepidopterist E.B. Ford. The painting is titled The New Religion and which is easily the most interesting thing about the painting, a bystander, having asked the painter what the four naturalists were doing, to be told “Don’t you know. It’s the new religion”.
This former religion is now turning into art, “nature as art” to employ Emmanuel Kant’s term for it. The concept of art in Kant is a rather looser concept than became current after his death and implied a purpose. Thus “nature as art” also meant that nature was itself purposeful. Though Kant was an agnostic, there is no getting away from the fact there is more than a hint of providential design at play here - and we would emphasize play because no one was more appreciative of play than the exacting Kant. Though he tended to keep play confined to “the play of the mind”, the fact that Kant’s nature involved a moral dimension meant it also was a stimulus to rational action. The moral in Kant was the starting point of his second major critique that of practical reason, which poses the question of the realization of humankind’s highest possible ends in practice and that also, involves the way we view, respond to and treat nature. This part of his three critiques took up the last years of his life and is more unresolved than his preceding critiques, suggesting it is still an open ended matter. Escaping rigid systematization, the loose ends of A Critique of Judgement can still be primed to explode. To put it somewhat tendentially, whereas art elicits a passive, consoling response, to experience nature’s free beauty directly is to break through representation, a move that ends up becoming a “call to arms”. One day we must really make a big effort to more fully answer the question “in what respect”, for there can be no doubting even with Kant, though couched in dense, philosophical language, it implied moving away from galleries, art books, poetry, music venues, etc.
There is in A Critique of Judgement a deft interweaving of the aesthetic and scientific, particularly in the biological realm, and we can only marvel at Kant’s extraordinary perspicacity because it reads as an anticipation of the increased status art has come to occupy in the conservationist and climate change movement until it is now the fairy at the top of the Christmas tree. We need also to be reminded that, in addition to his preoccupation with aesthetics, Kant in the last years of his life turned his attention to politics. Forget the degrading political spectacle of COP15, what politics meant for Kant was the self-legislation of the individual, a notion that, despite Kant being a republican himself and a believer in a universal form of government, actually transcends political representation and which should be tied in with his hide and seek rejection of art.
The above preamble indicates that Kant could have written the script of much of what is becoming increasingly an everyday occurrence and because of that escapes notice. And there is no doubting that Britain, particularly England, is to the fore of this development. We now need to ask the whys and wherefores. We begin with an example drawn from America and which helps put comparable happenings in the UK in perspective. In the New Scientist editorial (15/8/09) already referred to and headed Reimaging The World, mention is made of The Centre for Land Use Interpretation hat was founded in America in 1994 and “that draws on scientists, geographers, social historians, artist, writers and lawyers to analyse the way land is used”. “One result” the sub editor Liz Else adds “is a sort of research as art” ---------. The latter trill gives some idea how art, in the moment of its absence, is sweeping all before it because the CLUI insists that it is “neither an environmental nor an art collective” (our italics) and that it “resists categorization”. Proclaiming it is purely a “non profit research organization involved in exploring, examining and understanding land and land use issues” it does have artist residency programs but its web pages are thankfully free of artists’ rubbish and features rather more interesting things like dead malls, junkyards, transitional places and non places, these genuinely poetic places allowed to roam at will and find their own form, free from infestation by art and artists - at least for a while! When it raises issues like “obsolescence and ecology” the CLUI is obliged to mention the “capitalist practice” of planned obsolescence and which is surely an obvious comment to make but one the CLUI does not press home either and develop into a critique of consumer capitalism in the country of its birth. Nor say how another related issue “aesthetics and non-useful objects” can form the detritus of a possible social transcendence, the transitional spaces of industrial dereliction that have been abandoned by capitalism and of no further use to it, being of vital importance here. In such places one can flow free again like the nature that thrives in them. They possess an openness that liberates mind and body – and nature – the one thing that is unfortunately not specifically included in Shelley’s beautiful epiphany of dereliction: “I love all waste and solitary places where we taste the pleasure of believing what we see is boundless, as we risk our souls to be”. There are rather more of them in America than in the UK where they tend to be ‘ecologically’ landscaped out of existence, for they recall to mind the bitter struggles of the recent past, particularly the miners’ strike of 1984-5, and therefore needing to be instantly wiped off the map, no matter that they were, left to themselves, regenerating very nicely, thank you.
Aside on sites of industrial dereliction in the UK and the regenerating of poets
Any conference convened by natural history organizations to discuss industrial dereliction in the UK will fight shy of ever mentioning such a burning issue and dismiss it as completely irrelevant. That is the last thing it is, bodies like Buglife and Butterfly Conservation only able to see such places in terms of the extraordinary range of wild life they harbour, much richer, in practically every case, than to be found in the industrially farmed, insecticide drenched countryside. The main aim of such conferences is to greenwash the developers with Buglife and Butterfly Conservation etc manipulated into being front men who are then left with no choice other than justify the destruction of insect populations in the name of what has become the fatal overdose of ‘progress’. Unable to face up to the consequences of their actions, they then vent their fury on lone individuals who dare point it out, a fury that only guilt ridden complicity in destruction can produce. Stereotyped, yet again, as destructive trouble-makers like on countless other occasions, we candidates for the geriatric ward are deliberately excluded from such conference, the organizers afraid we will throw our zimmer frames around this time, not fists!
Nevertheless, the wider implications of these derelict sites seep through and even find their way into the main stream media, Robert Macfarlane’s film for the BBC’s Natural World exploring the industrial wastelands of Essex possibly the most unplugged example of it as far as the controlled media goes. A enthusiastic reviewer for The Independent (11th Feb 2010) described Macfarlane as “a writer and English don and it shows” only to then unequivocally praise his rhapsodizing of industry and nature but then to push it no further and condemn him for remaining a writer and don. Reviewers of course can do no such thing and would soon be shown the door if they did. So despise them though we do, we can’t expect them either to point out that Macfarlane never once mentioned capitalism or grasped that dereliction opens up perspectives on the future, like a dream promising fulfilment that unsettles us for days on end because we ache for it to come true. Macfarlane’s imagery, of course, can be striking, but since he is not seeking transcendence simply remains a substitute for it. However pause to examine the imagery and it turns slick drained of meaning. What are we to make of malodorous poeticisms like “razor wire finds its rhyme in the coils of bramble behind” and birds “arrive in the north with the Arctic trapped in their feathers”? Any more of this and sites of industrial dereliction risk being recast as a potential poets’ corner, breeding grounds of cultural reaction and wannabe Shelleys’ without wings who, if they persist in being poets, will always remain grounded.
When we visited Canvey Wick, “England’s rain forest” in the Thames Estuary, we fell quiet as if deprived of the power of speech: gasps, idiot stuttering and the most banal of commonplaces all that came out after long intervals in which neither of us said a word. Silence here was the real wow factor. An absence of words come closest to accurately describing the sublime and this was as close as its possible to get to it today, the thunder of natures more obvious spectacles like the Grand Canyon and Victoria Falls hushed long ago never more to resonate so long as tourist itineraries exist. Not so Canvey Wick and it was like we had been blessed with new eyes that actually sometimes focus on new behavioural strategies, like herring gulls nesting on flat office roofs and so able to raise two or three chicks because out of reach from predation by foxes. And as for common lizards sunbathing on burnt out cars---.However to describe it as does Macfarlane as a “glimpse into another world that runs alongside ours” is to give it a spiritual rather than material content, one that can only be accessed through poetic imagery rather than the practice that flows from a wide-ranging critique of political economy.
The Centre for Land Use Interpretation does not pretend to be anything other than what it is, “a land agency for the establishment of the American Land Museum, a network of exhibition sites in various interpretative zones across the country which together form a dynamic portrayal of the national landscape”. This is all very bland stuff and though it may reflect a deep seated compulsion by modern day capitalism to make an exhibit, or installation, out of everything, the CLUI is merely doing what it was designed to do. The same cannot be said of comparable bodies in the UK that are also interdisciplinary and cross platform in intent, like Tipping Point, Cape Farewell and the RSA’s Arts Ecology Centre (The Hub in particular), for the latter claim they are out to change society and give it a new direction, shamelessly touting a specious radicalism in order to win favour in high places and recruits from lower down the social scale.
Cape Farewell was set up by David Buckland himself an artist in 2001 and which “brought together leading artists, writers, scientists, educators and media for a series of expeditions into the wild and challenging High Arctic”. Notice how it is artists that come first in the list of notables and not scientists as at the American CLUI. Buckland was also to curate the Royal Academy’s Earth: Art of a Changing World that ran concurrently with Cop 15. Cape Farewell since 2007 has been in collaboration with the Eden Project which was established in 2000. It also has links with Tipping Point, a network based organization that aims to be a “year round connector of the arts and climate change world and to harness the power of the imagination to help stabilize the climate”. The Tipping Point web page prominently features Ed Miliband (the UK’s Climate Secretary) announcing Tipping Point commission prizes just prior to the occupation of the wind turbine factory in the Isle of Wight. These prizes are to be awarded to projects that “develop a critical mass of performance based work conceived in the context of climate change”. Everywhere the stated emphasis is upon bringing things to a head though that is the very last thing these organizations desire and any project that threatened to get out of hand and become a real intervention would soon have its funding cut off. Though worth a try, its doubtful if the inclination to subvert it from within is even there nowadays. Artists on the brink of negating art are easily cowed into remaining artists because of the perks of the role and the threat of losing everything, the terrifying prospect of Mac jobs imposing conformity when all else fails. Though it is undoubtedly harder today, we had to make that choice years ago, this comfort denying ruse of reason turning into a life saver that was far from apparent at the time. Tipping Point awards have been made possible from money bequeathed to it by Major Road which was an influential force in British theatre for twenty nine years until the 1990s. Though there are other funders, this gives an idea how traditional theatre is propelled, almost against its will, to tinker with intervention and its own demise, hoping to replace the death of traditional theatre with a round-the-clock life lived out as performance art. So far, this theatricalisation of humanity’s approaching end has been extraordinarily successful, with not a hand raised in protest against it. COP15 gave it its final seal of approval.
The marketing of nature could be said to purposely overlap with the music industry in The Eden Project. Established in 2000 its co-founder and CEO is Tim Smit, another Dutch businessman who was formerly a music producer and song writer, the Eden Project his requiem to nature though advertised as communicating its story in a “living theatre of plants and people”! He comes across as a particularly brutish entrepreneur, berating Britain for the absence of an abrasive business environment and for being risk averse - which is pretty rich considering Britain’s pivotal role in unleashing a wild card capitalism that hit the buffers so spectacularly in mid 2007.The fact that Smit calls the Eden Project a “social enterprise” (a term borrowed from the lexicon of US business practice) does not mean that it is in anyway social, rather that it seeks to motivate the work force through a series of draconian measures that instils in them a total commitment to “market based strategies” – or else! Nature conservation from this perspective is just sentimental tosh if it does not turn a buck.
It is too early to say if that other Eden, the Butterfly House (see Fuck the New Nature Writing elsewhere on RAP web) presently being constructed at St Albans will follow a similar business model. But one thing’s for sure: it’s not about conservation, the “biggest butterfly house in the world” hoping to become “the most significant visitor attraction cum conservation project in the UK" (The Independent, 29th march 2008). Of course it is only to be expected creeps like Attenborough and David Bellamy would support this disgusting project. However it is saddening that Jeremy Thomas, the lepidopterist mainly responsible for reintroducing the Large Blue butterfly back into the UK, should have given the opening speech at the press lunch held to celebrate the launch of the butterfly casino. The guiding idea behind these biodomes is the blurring of what’s real and unreal, the all pervasive feel they are meant to induce, more to do with the entertainment industry’s ideal model of a continuous 24/7 immersive drug high.
The Hub is part of the RSA’s Arts and Ecology Centre and its interdisciplinary approach to the question of climate change is the same as that of Cape Farewell and Tipping Point. Unlike the Eden Project where it took seven years to move botanists aside to make space for theatrical impresarios for whom arranging plants meant their orchestration, The Hub right from the start gave the artist pre-eminence in everything. Its watchword is “connecting creativity to social change” followed by a further promissory note: “If we’re going to move the arts response to climate change forward we need to create inclusive environments to exchange ideas ---.This is the place where artists, academics, campaigners and organization working in response to climate change can connect, share resources and information and find new ways to work together blah,blah,blah”. The Hub web page is flagged with one of Richard Long’s walk pieces - which one doesn’t matter - for he takes the same walk endlessly.
However we really did step out and Long’s first works coincide with the Icteric experiment that took place in Newcastle between 1966/67. Though formally they are little different to what we were doing then, conceptually they could not be more opposed. But while we rapidly moved on, Long stayed put, his repetitious foot slogs finally achieving an extraordinary renown. They are extraordinary not because they are anything in themselves but for the fact they reflect a huge change in the way nature is now valued as a from of currency, the art/nature entrepreneur complementing the ecological entrepreneur for whom nature is a potential ecological treasure trove and source of sustainable plunder.
Long could have stopped with just the one geometric line, rather than path, trodden out in the landscape by continually retracing his footsteps. But he was determined to make this his trademark so he just carried on treading the same path through rural and remote areas of Britain and as far afield as the plains of Canada, Mongolia and Bolivia. Insensitive to place, his walks are unvarying, undeviating and deadly boring. Imposed on different landscapes they are like money, abstractions of different contents, a pure form of tourism cleansed of local colour catering to the type of tourist that has come to expect the same wherever he or she goes and to follow the same itinerary - and which makes us wonder why they ever bothered to go away in the first place. A herald of a conceptual Tourist Board now in the making, (c/f the paid-up conceptual tours in the mountainous region of Provence based around Andy Goldsworthy’s art trulli), Long justifies the anonymity of tourism, making nothingness count monetarily by making a show out of it. He empties nature of meaning in the same way Jay Jopling’s White Cube gallery emptied the revolutionary avant-garde of the first decades of the 20th century of meaning by turning white into a commodity, Long doing the same for green. As eco art that pretends it is not damaging or changing landscapes, it panders perfectly to the schizophrenics of tourism who desperately want to imagine they are other than what they are. It is these type of people who are the most prone to the propaganda put out by the RSA’s Arts and Ecology Centre and who still want to have their cake and eat it. But for us on the cusp, all those years ago, of a new way of relating to nature, there were no buyers. Nor had we any inclination to sell, for none of what we did carried a price tag. At that time nature’s price was someway off in this country the future, eco art being very much a derivative of that monetarising tendency, as Long’s and Goldsworthy’s art clearly demonstrates. To do an intervention against Goldsworthy’s tripe in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park at Bretton Hall together with a coherent explanation why it is necessary to do such acts would clear some air. A real splashing paint job would do for starters!
To continually stress the importance of Icteric is not just a self-serving piece of propaganda because it actually did contain in embryo all that was to happen subsequently and actually did foreshadow, by several decades, the rise of eco art to a position of unrivalled hegemony in today’s world. We are as much surprised by this as anyone and even more disturbed by the way this development stays rooted to the spot, unable ever to take the next essential step we found so unavoidable, as if pushed by an irresistible force into a critique of capitalism. This extraordinary inertia is baffling in the extreme and so far there is not the merest hint of a move in the right direction – in fact the very opposite because, in the Post Copenhagen world, eco art is bigger than ever and even more of a substitute for revolutionary change than previously. Eco art does not just sit atop the hierarchy of the arts but pretends to gather together all their separate strands and from them forge a new form of interdisciplinary expression that is a prelude to changing life. At the time of the romantics it was poetry, specifically nature poetry, that occupied this hegemonic position and in the brief summer of Icteric we were aware we were settling accounts with English nature poetry and poetry in general. We felt poetry had reached the end of the road and could only be recovered by becoming inspirational fact.
Moreover, in Icteric the English nature tradition, as expressed largely through the former magnificence of poetry, became visual (and at the time we really did mean former – from Caedmon & Chaucer through to the last romantics and possibly Manley Hopkins - having nothing but contempt say for the contemporary Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, sub-romanticisms etc). What previously provided the raw material of words and images was exhibited as the thing itself into which we were free to read whatever we pleased and only much later did we begin to see this state of mind had been, with a bit of a tweak here and there, anticipated in Kant’s conception of “free beauty”. This was a state of primal reverie involving the imaginative and cognitive faculties but that is not specifically either, a state existing prior to art and science in which nature is experienced with utmost intensity. Possibly for the first time in history it assumed an explosive form. Stepping beyond literature and art we were neither artists nor scientists, nor much of anything really though certainly in pain. Not knowing quite what we were, we had become nothing, unable henceforth to categorize ourselves or play a role with any degree of conviction in the theatrical farce that post 1968 had now become life: in fact, though recognizing its power, we were deeply critical of the nihilistic view of life propounded in say The Season in Hell as “a farce to be played by everyone”. The logic of our position had proletarianised us and so when we came across Marx’s incendiary cry that he put in the mouth of an insurgent factory worker, “I am nothing but I must be everything” - and which appeared on the cover of King Mob - we really thought it perfectly expressed the way we felt. This loss of a role and loss of self in order to make way for a more complete self,- (“to find yourself, get lost”) - is certainly not what the RSA, Cape Farewell etc is about and which they would be right in condemning as negative, they having no appreciation whatsoever of the power of negative thinking. Their interdisciplinary forums are no more than a coming together of specialists who basically are secure in their role but who now feel impelled to take a walk on the safely imaginative side of life, swapping the use of the right hand cortex of their brains for the left artistic one. The outcome? Rather than confront the reality of suicide capitalism, they much prefer to let themselves be led up shit creek by eco artists who claim to hold in their hands the keys to change which they know for sure they don’t possess.
Exhibiting trees, or the mould on plants as art, we had absolutely no idea how dominant this tendency toward the show casing of individual fragments of nature was to become: “the tall rock, the mountain, the deep and gloomy wood” (Wordsworth) was not poetry to us but powerful description - as it must be to everyone who stops to think about it. Marvell’s “green thought in a green shade”, which for several hundred years had been a touchstone of English nature poetry became overgrown with weeds, a poor substitute for what it was like to actually muse in a wood. We were, of course, much taken with Rimbaud’s ascription of colours to vowels and to Mallarme attributing varying shades of light and darkness to words, both approaches undermining the foundations, and legitimacy, of poetry as it had existed for millennia. We had first heard of Marvell in our early teens and then only for his use of alliteration. Later becoming aware he was one of the Metaphysical Poets but at no time did an English teacher ever actually situate him in the context of the English Civil War of the 1640s – a fact which changes everything about him and could even be the key reason why he became a tactile poet to us, someone who created things you could almost touch, although it was another metaphysical poet, George Herbert, who actually developed the relationship between word and image, an innovation that was streets ahead of his time. Contrary to Milton, the down to earth poet of the English Revolution lent himself so readily to this primary metamorphosis, the stumbling movement from stately home and garden to the irresistible might of The Commons - “ensnared in flowers I fall on grass” - also that from the written word to reality, a breaking through to a more fundamental way of living that was so profoundly present in the English Revolution of the 1640s.
No matter how paltry Icteric might now appear there is no denying it helped set off a vast chain of combative enquiry. Having begun to question the existence of art, the “stability in the value of art (as) something wholly above history and society” to quote Lukacs, it seemed natural to go on to question so much more besides. To question art as fundamentally as we did was to plumb the depths of change, a change without precedent in human history and one touched on by Lukacs in 1919, only for him to instantly drop the whole idea as too earth-shattering and never to be considered again, when he added that “even more profound changes are necessary to render invalid (art’s) subjectively valid appearance of eternity”. Such changes are epochal and, in terms of what it promised, the late sixties was a primal moment, the outpouring of millennia of aspiration that had got waylaid and sent in the wrong direction. To be sure, we could find pointers in the avant-garde of the first decades of the 20th century and how this came to be linked with theworkers’ movement, but there was no precedent, excepting romanticism, we could fall back on in this country of any immediate assistance to us that could help in explaining just how radical our responses to nature were becoming. To say that we envisaged a coming together of the scientific nature tradition in the UK and the one embodied in the tradition of nature poetry especially, but that also had to include pictorial representation, is to misrepresent it, for both terms had to be transcended and boundaries crossed, this mingling preventing the matter becoming merely an interdisciplinary affair. Not only did time honoured assumptions need shaking up but lives also, lives that in the process would be fundamentally changed, temporarily ruined even, and of no further use to capitalism. Having undergone this baptism of fire, there would be no job for the asking on some interdisciplinary panel either in The Hub, Cape Farewell or anywhere else.
As part of this project, we felt called upon to unearth the true romanticism, quite literally what it was really looking for in other words beneath the all too familiar artistic legacy. And so odd, previously overlooked, details began to take on a primary significance, like De Quincey piling up books on philosophy then firing at them with a child’s bow and arrow. He was also much taken with the economist’s David Ricardo’s labour theory of value and De Quincey can be considered as one of the first Ricardian ‘socialists’, despite being something of a High Tory himself and which led to clashes with the far more consistent Hazlitt. Rather than praise him in print, De Quincey wanted to memoralise Ricardo in sand, needing just “a few square feet of the sea-shore to draw my diagrams upon - to demonstrate every other truth of the science”. Struggling to kick junk in 1817, he would read Milton and Wordsworth aloud but more often he preferred to have tracts on political economy read to him. Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation produced in De Quincey a rapture poetry was no longer able to provide, causing him to exclaim: “wonder and curiosity were emotions that had long been dead in me. Yet I wondered once more”. These hints of unexplored frontiers, of un-guessed at possibilities, accorded with the shattered sentences of The Confessions of an English Opium Eater and De Quincey’s inability to write verse which he found too formulaic and no longer up to expressing his new purpose.
Though from a privileged background, De Quincey did know what it was like to be down and out and his experiences as a teenager in London sleeping rough, even cuddling up to a 10 year old girl for warmth and hanging out with prostitutes, left an indelible impression upon him. His love for a prostitute Annie and his perambulations through the London slums were a remarkable anticipation of psychogeography. In the Rookeries love, low life and an idea of architecture that had become frozen solid over time dissolved into the air, all three forming an indivisible whole. The shifting, plural habitats through which De Quincey moved would change use and meaning according to human interaction that was in turn governed by the time of day and circumstance. Architecture and architects, try as they might, would never fully recover from De Quincey’s intriguing observations who not for one moment suspected he’d set off a revolution in perception, though it still needed an actual revolution to put the railroad that ran through the middle of the house into a prospect of bounty from which grinding toil and acute want had been eliminated. In his dreams and hallucinations Annie and ‘architecture’ acquired a remarkable “power of endless growth and self reproduction” suggesting that for love to flower free there needs to be in place a constantly regenerating landscape, even if it did tend to assume, in De Quincey’s imagination, a frightening and hideous form that does not mean it could not have gone the other way, wonderland replacing nightmare.
However the contradictions of De Quincey’s life would be played out in a more gruesome form over 150 years later in this country. The public school Situationists that brought this advanced theory to the UK would, in the late 1960s, have enthusiastically responded to this heretical interpretation of De Quincey revelling more in the acid asides of Marx and a critique of political economy than in any cultural mush, only then to rapidly succumb to a potent, though hush-hush, never to be mentioned, reverence for traditional class hierarchies and the superiority that went with it albeit with a bohemian tinge. The rise of the industrial working class, and the social democratic consensus that tended to accompany it, had, we thought, put it on the back foot once and for all. How wrong we were! Instead, de-industrialization, the defeat of the industrial working class and the unparalleled hegemony of finance capital meant it was that much easier for them to again give free reign to their ‘innate’ snobbery which largely went uncontested and if ever brought to notice was merely proof of us, in particular, having a chip on our shoulders. Never has the levelling spirit that for centuries has run through this country like a golden thread been so censured, robbed of all basic rationality and made to appear so foolish.
Cast far lower down the social scale than ever the leading figures of romanticism were, we also judged things from the bottom up much more than they ever did, and which gave our initial radicalism a proletarian edge that cut even deeper. Our lives were also much more anonymous but, paradoxically, the outlook we were the living representatives of, posed a much greater threat. Though our views never see the light of day in the media, one can detect echoes of them everywhere and the only way they (in this instance views on nature and conservation) could be given a shadow representation was by investing eco art with its usurped power, an event that also goes a long way to explaining why it can now, in these cataclysmically reactionary times, so easily pass muster as being itself the revolution, sweeping all before it.
Chapter 5. Cop15: The RSA and Royal Society
the changing face of the Royal Society of Art and the bringing together of the arts and sciences/John Jordan and his spurious radicalism/ A potted industrial history/Marx and theories of surplus value/The nonsense of no-growth economies set within a capitalist framework
It is necessary to say a few words about the above societies as both were more than tangentially involved in COP15, particularly the RSA through its Art and Ecology section founded in 2005. Though the Royal Society has never questioned the science behind climate change, the failure of COP15 will only reinforce its gloomy view that, like it or not, geo engineering is now the only option. (See chapter 6 for a fuller discussion).
Not only had the RSA, in some way, nurtured much of the eco art on display in Copenhagen but also discreetly lent its support to John Jordan’s Laboratory of the Imagination, a doomed (see chapter 2) bid to inject a spurious radicalism into the arts unmistakably harking back to the revolutionary slogan of the late sixties “All power to the Imagination”. When shouted out loud in the late sixties though always a somewhat fluffy slogan it then clearly implied a rejection of art and gallery owners and theatre and museum directors would hurry to close their doors against it. Emphasizing above all the resistance movement of the practical imagination, it also unequivocally affirmed that arts and capitalism were now so firmly interlocked that to attack one, in any meaningful sense, was to combat the other.
The bid to reinstate art as a subversive tool of course does not commence with John Jordan and is a continuation of the advertisers’ stock in trade use of shock tactics assiduously cultivated by the YBAs from the late 1980s onwards. Aghast at the growing absence of class struggle (particularly the curtailing of wildcat strikes and with it the extraordinary capacity of wildcat action to somehow focus and electrify people) we became aware the trade mark frisson of the YBAs was the de luxe expression of the new service economy based on art and the ‘creative industries’. Since the onset of the great economic crises, support for the idea has fallen away as has its main supports: the hegemony of finance, easy credit and house price inflation. In this interregnum in which the new and old contend, eco art has come to symbolize the setting up of a sustainable society on the ruins of the old. The easy embrace of these aims by the RSA is entirely in accord with its founding principles and despite the fact the president is Matthew Taylor, the son of the former Trotskyist Ian Taylor, the society does not, and never has, sponsored revolutionary overthrow. It seeks rather to promote responsible industrial renewal and its activities can be thought of as ecological long before the term was ever coined. (See the Dingy Skipper films, especially Frickley Colliery elsewhere on the RAP web).
A few words on the history of the RSA are appropriate because it also endeavoured long ago to bring together the arts and the sciences. The growing emphasis upon combining the arts and sciences, both within and without the RSA, rather than heralding a new dawn is an evasion of the real task to hand - namely the abolition of capitalism. However the RSA is in no doubt we are at a turning point but even so it will do everything in can to disguise the gravity of the crises and seek to gag genuine protest. Balanced as we are on the edge of destruction, the RSA has returned to type, replaying its origins, though unable ever to publicly admit this is now make or break time for the human species.
The Royal Society of Arts and Commerce was founded in the 1740s by William Shipley, a drawing master from Northampton, at the very moment industrial capitalism was just to say beginning to change the face of the planet. Needless to say our moment is even more pivotal. The RSA was based on “the idea of using premiums to support improvements in the liberal arts and sciences to stimulate enterprise for the common good”. The society is keen to publicise the fact that from 1770 onwards awards were offered for the reducing of smoke emissions. Over 230 years later the RSA has become an apostle of eco art driven civic capitalism, its wider aim to make both central to a new green industrial revolution. Though opposed to patenting (patented models were excluded right from its inception and the public were to be given the opportunity to examine the latest inventions) its founding charter included a commitment to commerce, a commitment it has today specifically underlined by insisting “we believe that successful businesses are a crucial part of a successful society”. Amen.
In 1761 the RSA held its first industrial exhibition which was of prize winning models of machinery but it had been preceded a year before by its first contemporary art exhibition which included paintings by Joshua Reynolds and Richard Wilson. In this instance we should substitute the term ‘liberal arts’ for ‘useful arts’ and soon the Royal Academy would be catering for the former. The RSA was an early proponent of industrial painting before the term was ever thought up by the International Lettrists in the 1950s. Though lithographs as an example of serial production were permitted, paintings, unless they demonstrated an improvement in manufactured colours, were excluded from the Great Exhibition of 1851 which the RSA was mainly responsible for organising. The emphasis in the Great Exhibition lay upon the mechanization of art and craft and no sculpture was permitted unless created by skilled workmen using mechanical appliances. A successor to the enlightenment, it was also billed as a universal exhibition to distinguish it from the national and local exhibitions that had been previously held in Lille, Lyons and Birmingham. Though an assertion of the Britain’s industrial supremacy, The Great Exhibition was also banging the drum for industry per se rather than national capital, the RSA’s arts and ecology centre also heir to this international rather than simply national outlook. However many eco artists the RSA may stable in times to come, they will never be marketed as a national treasure in the same way as the YBAs were.
Albert, the Prince Consort, believed the stimulus to industry following the exhibition must be followed by the education of the public in art and the appreciation of art. And that is how Britain’s art schools came to be set up. Though initially the accent was upon industrial design they soon became academies of fine art, a development which was against the grain of the society’s industrial orientation.
Though not stridently so, the RSA was also conceived in workaday opposition to the Royal Society which, by the mid 18th century, was living up to its title, having become more of a club for dilettante lords imbued with classical learning and reflecting the prejudices of a landed/mercantile aristocracy. Paying their dues on time, they also exercised a disproportionate influence on account of that. Though many of its founders, it is true, had been parliamentarians and interested in ship design, navigation, tides and weather, its first president was William, Viscount Brounckner, chosen on pragmatic grounds because he was a royalist serving in the parliament that had recalled Charles 11 back to England. William Petty (1623-1687) who sat in on the first ever meeting of the Royal Society on 28th November 1660, was typical. Though a physiocrat, conceiving the form of value as deriving from agricultural produce and surplus value as existing only in the form of rent, he also devised the first catamaran. Petty had benefited from the replacing of royalists in Oxford University by parliamentary appointees and then was stripped of most of his appointments on the restoration, only retaining the chair of music at Gresham College.
The contrast with Thomas Newcomen (1663/1729), the humble Dartford ironmonger, could hardly be greater. For many years his cumbersome atmospheric steam engine that he invented in 1712, remained the only functioning one of its kind. Though it owed something to the experimental study of atmospheric pressure by members of the Royal Society, Newcomen`s “fire engine” was a case of science gaining more from technology than vice versa. In short scientific knowledge was becoming divorced from the advancement of industry and for decades the systematizers of the Royal Society, unaware power was shifting from the land to industry, looked askance at the heuristic inventions of the nascent industrial revolution.
Compared to the increasingly august Royal Society, the RSA was always more modest in its aims, the grimy hands on experimenters who drove the industrial revolution owing little to the Royal Society. The RSA gave prizes for good paper, varnish, saltpetre, sweeping chimneys and for growing swedes and planting forests. A roll call of its former members include Chippendale, Banks (the botanist), Hogarth (the engraver), Hargreaves, Arkwright, Darbys and many others including Samuel Johnson. In time the RSA also lost out to the Mechanics Institutes and the apprenticeship schemes they fostered. Throughout its entire history the RSA has never dealt directly with dissent, and the setting up of the Mechanics Institutes meant it could leave to others the question of what to do with rebellious apprentices who, faced with unemployment and starvation wages, were inevitably attracted by the prospect of a revolution. But it did mean the RSA was now rudderless. Rather than become involved in actually shaping industry, which routinely meant confronting a workforce that could turn very hostile, an increasingly aloof RSA was now only able to assess the products of industry. Not quite sure where it was heading, its name shrank to the RSA. When it put on a show of drawings, it was the need for precise industrial draftsmanship, not fine art that would prompt it. In a curious way there is here an involuntary anticipation of Duchamp’s comment that the only art America has given the world was its plumbing and bridges. Though it has now become the leading patron of eco art, the RSA’s mute constructivism and clear preference for engineering drawings over that of landscape sketches means that the eco art it sponsors will never be of the representational variety.
After an astonishing interval of sixty four years, Newcomen’s steam engine was only replaced by Watts condensing engine in 1776, the year of the American Declaration of Independence and the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Even more so than Newcomen (who used carpenters, coppersmiths and plumbers working in their traditional manner but adapting their joint efforts to a new purpose) Watts had to forge a new workforce out of the old, one capable of executing his designs. Again it doesn’t take much to see we are at a comparable turning point with the RSA typically unwilling to dirty its hands on this score because it involves dealing with recalcitrant workers and not easily fooled artists.
Today’s growing calls for a new climate economy confusedly point to a need to create a new industrial workforce which is bound to result in a massive reorientation of “traditional jobs involving a training in new skills for already experienced craft people”. (See Chapter 9 and the Campaign against Climate Change booklet One Million Climate Jobs NOW! put together by the fellow traveller SWP member Jonathan Neale). The diagnosis is not wrong but the means of implementing are, never once venturing, even remotely, beyond the framework of existing political economy. However it does seek to regress the present multinational/market/financial state back toward a more responsive local model consistent with the thirty year, short lived, era of nationalisation following the Second World War in which TU’s will play a presiding role in securing peace between the warring classes. (As always Trotskyists are condemned to reproduce what they censure but more on that later). There are two points to be born in mind as regards the above: one, that a new climate economy must necessarily form part of a green energy revolution and, two, for it to be successful it requires that capitalism be abolished. These related points also have a bearing on the following observations.
Though the pumping machines of Newcomen and Watts have become synonymous with the industrial revolution and industrial capitalism, they also massively facilitated an energy revolution based on the extraction and use of coal. In the same year as the founding of the Royal Society (1660), Britain’s mines were producing as much coal as the rest of the world. But not a hint can be found anywhere of the impending industrial revolution, nor of the catastrophic nature of that change and satanic factories that were its lasting legacy. Today it is the other way round, a sense of immanent catastrophe preceding the need for a clean energy revolution. Though some of us are, in this respect, more conscious than others, it only makes the burden of consciousness that much harder to bear and we crave the peace of mind of the disingenuous scientific dreamers of the 17th/18th century.
Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Watt’s historic replacement of an atmospheric engine by a steam engine are bracketed alongside each other above to emphasize the fact that Smith’s book was widely regarded, at the time, as subversive of the existing order, particularly his treatment of productive and unproductive labour. Watt’s engine was a revolutionary instrument in more ways than one, this ‘infernal machine’ also, like Adam Smith, bringing home to “the great mass of so-called ‘higher grade’ workers - such as state officials, military people, artists, doctors, priests, judges lawyers etc (that they were) parasites on the actual producers (and) to be relegated economically to the same class as clowns and menial servants” (Marx, Theories of Surplus Value). Marx titles this section the “Vulgarization of Bourgeois Political Economy in the Definition of Productive Labour” going on to document how, over time, the industrial bourgeoisie made peace “with all its unproductive labourers” and that “both the do-nothings and their parasites had to be found a place in this best possible order of things”. A lasting peace came about the moment “positive science (natural sciences) were subordinated to it as serving material production” and which became an excuse for the “sycophantic underlings of political economy to justify every sphere of activity (as) linked with the production of material wealth”.
Many eulogies will appear on this 350th anniversary of the Royal Society (e.g. Seeing Further; the Story of the Royal Society ed. Bill Bryson). It is very unlikely that any will be able to chart its transformation from a gentleman’s club of unparalleled brilliance, ultimately beholden to a landed/commercial aristocracy, to the Society becoming, after a long interregnum, an unabashed instrument of an industrial capitalism that it had formerly held rather at arms length, this embrace of the nuts and bolts of the commonplace also coinciding with the empty glitz, ceremonial excess, sheer waste, conspicuous consumption etc of a bourgeois order that had forgotten “its parvenu period (and) severely critical attitude to the machinery of state - bourgeois society reproducing in its own form everything against which it had fought in feudal and absolutist form” (Marx).
It is essential that we bring to a new industrial/energy revolution an incomparably greater upheaval of values that is far more earth shaking than the tremors caused by Smith’s notion of productive and unproductive labour. Nor must we confuse productive labour in the Smithsonian sense (“the value of the product as the essential basis of bourgeois wealth”) with use value which implies the abolition of exchange value. A climate economy must also be anti-consumerist for we cannot have both, the critique of political economy taking centre stage across a totality that leaves nothing untouched. But nowhere are the two ever combined and the growing number of books advocating a no-growth economy under the reign of capital are little more than nonsense. They wilfully ignore the fact that simple reproduction has been replaced by expanded reproduction and the decision to put an end to capitalist accumulation rests neither with government or business but with the proletariat. The New Scientist (Oct 18th 2008) devoted virtually an entire issue to “Beyond Growth” arguing that “personal carbon virtue and collective environmentalism are futile as long as our economic system is based on the assumption of growth”. However the relentless drive to expand and accumulate is built into the capitalist system: it is not based on assumptions that can be changed at will, through force of argument and indisputable scientific fact. COP15 proved that much, once and for all. (See the next chapter for further comments on the ideologies of no-growth economies).
Today, the big technocratic ideas that could change the face of the planet, if not the body politic, belong incontestably to the Royal Society. Though the RSA wants a green industrial revolution, it is not in a position to foster the actual mechanics of that revolution in the same way as it did the industrial revolution. There is no equivalent of a Hargreaves or Arkwright amongst the RSA’s members like there once was. Nor could there be because the scale of the engineering required today to ameliorate climate change is vast and beyond the ability of even the most cash rich private firms to fund. Unable to relinquish its role as an enlightened educator, the RSA promotes eco art as the aesthetic facilitator of change both on a personal (the minimizing of a person’s carbon footprint) and industrial level. No previous technological revolution has ever been heralded with such a universal aesthetic fanfare in order to hide the fact an anti-capitalist one is most definitely not amongst its aims. Today the growing numbers of eco artists are the RSA’s only work force to speak of and through them it seeks to preserve its common touch and purpose. Lacking the Royal Society’s cachet, it makes up for in by being more accessible to the common people. But it then goes on to score a victory over the Royal Society by thrusting eco artists to the forefront of change (even become the ‘revolutionary’ change itself ) which scientists then must honour and pay obeisance to.
Chapter 6: Post COP15 and Geo-Engineering
The nonsense of Sir Martin Reece/Nature as capital/Planetary plunder & no-growth economies/Scientific phantasmagorias/ Spiritualization of science/Stapledon’s Starmaker.
In 2008 a special edition of the British Royal Society journal was dedicated to geo-engineering, a broad term used to cover all schemes that tackle the symptoms of climate change without addressing ‘the root causes’, a pussy footing turn of phrase that unvaryingly evades any mention of the real cause: capitalism. The Royal Society assent however was not unqualified, and it pointed out these schemes “may be risky but the time may well come when they are accepted as less risky than doing nothing”. Even before COP15, half of all environmental scientists supported engineering the climate and that included such schemes as a giant mirror or aggregation of small mirrors between the sun and earth, maintaining a fleet of ships that would pump water vapour into the atmosphere to increase the earth’s reflective capacity or albedo, to fertilising the sea with iron filings, a limiting factor in the multiplication of phytoplankton able to absorb CO2. The latter is the most dangerous as it will increase the acidification of the oceans and is bound to hasten the destruction of coral reefs upon which ¼ of marine life depends. Everyone is agreed however that once started, the majority of these schemes would have to be continued, as stopping them would bring an abrupt change in climate. It is analogous to putting the planet on life support systems.
The failure of COP15 has given these schemes an enormous boost, a pervasive sense of crippling despair alternating with an eagerness to seize this once in a lifetime business opportunity. In the spring of 2010 the Climate Institute in Washington is to organise a conference in California to discuss a solar shield. It is to be arranged by Climate Response a fund run by Margaret Einen. Her son Dan Whaley heads Climos (where formerly Einen was chief scientific advisor), a firm set up to profit from geo-engineering by selling carbon credits in exchange for fertilizing the sea with iron filings. A former chief executive of Microsoft has set up a company called Intellectual Ventures which is exploring the possibilities of pumping large quantities of reflective sulphur dust into earth’s stratosphere through a patented eighteen mile long hose held up by helium balloons. This kind of cheap, hustle engineering merely panders to a rapidly fading belief that free markets can deal with climate change and that a Greenfinger, like the uber-entrepeneur Richard Branson, having delivered the planet over to commoditised play can now step in and throw it the ultimate commoditised lifeline. However Mike McCracken of the Climate Institute believes large scale unilateral planetary engineering is “not very plausible” and his view is supported by Bob Watson chief scientist at Defra, the UK’s pseudo environmental organisation who insists that it requires “a real international effort so it isn’t just the UK funding it”. Though as a state bureaucrat paying lip service to the ideology of the free market and bound to shy away from being more specific, it rather implies that it is the state that will have to stump up the cash and that it will also act as guarantor for any private sector involvement in a council of science and technology.
On at least two occasions the Astronomer Royal and Royal Society Professor at Cambridge, Martin Rees, has called for massive state intervention on the scale of the Manhattan project (that gave birth to the atomic bomb), the first in order to crack nuclear fusion so as to make it commercially viable, the second arguing for massive infrastructural investment on carbon capture and storage (CCS) which would involve sums of money only the state can contemplate spending. However as recently as September 2009 the Royal Society issued a statement saying they were not sold on the idea of geo-engineering and that methods, for instance, to black out the sun “may provide useful short-term back up to mitigation in case rapid reduction in global temperatures are needed”. However it was in no doubt reduction in emissions were the way to go and in all probability were looking to Copenhagen to achieve that. Presumably since then the Royal Society will be more prone to throw caution to the winds and, out of desperation, go for a technocratic geo-fix which, if it does go wrong, will, in some instances, results in instantaneous, absolutely catastrophic climate change.
Geo engineering is just one aspect of an impending technological restructuring of life on a literally cosmic scale. In 2003 a doomsday compendia of “our post human future” appeared written by Sir Martin Rees. Consciously echoing the title of Fukuyama’s book (2002), it was called in the UK, Our Final Century, the American edition being renamed Our Final Hour, thus shortening the odds post 9/11. In the prologue Rees says “I think the odds are no better than 50/50 that our present civilization on earth will survive to the end of the present century” only to countermand it somewhat in the final sentence of the penultimate chapter Beyond Earth “Likewise, the post-human potential is so immense that not even the most misanthropic amongst us would countenance its being foreclosed by human actions”. This lamentable optimism is then qualified, by-polar fashion, when he says two pages later “the theme of this book is that humanity is more at risk than at any earlier phase in its history”. Make a list of chapter headings and one gets an indication of the extreme unease that hides behind the Astronomer Royal’s coiffed, aquiline appearance and manicured hands. These range from Risking the Earth, Disastrous Accidents, Our ‘final’ Experiment, Extreme Risks, What are the Worst Cases, Human Threats to Earth, Can We Stay Human, The Sixth Extinction and the slightly more light-hearted A Low Risk but not Negligible that discusses a possible collision with near earth objects. One moment up, the other down, this is not antithetical reasoning, one that examines the pros and cons, but more a case of scientific bi-polarity, the tailored suits, scientific renown and status of knight of the realm all that seems to stand between the Astronomer Royal and suicide.
There is also an unmistakable Hegelian expanse to Rees’s reasoning, a progression without a dialectic that goes from Just Six Numbers (the title of a book by Rees and following on from Cosmic Coincidences composed by him and John Gribbin appearing in 1990) to the notion of a biophilliac universe, favorable to the evolution of life. At this point the reasoning falls apart, as if the Astronomer Royal had put down The Philosophy of Nature and then failed to pick up The Phenomenology of Mind. There is no triumph of the “human spirit” to celebrate, no radical anti capitalist revolution in the background to put him right and to which he could constantly refer. The survival of life (life as we don’t know it) then becomes the only criteria, the only value left. And so Sir Martin is committed to the seeding of space, its ‘greening’ eventually pervading the entire galaxy and beyond, and one given a homely setting like it was an uncultivated back garden, if the title of his millennial 2001 book, Our Cosmic Habitat, is anything to go by. The ‘new communities’ - some that simply float in space recalling the island utopias of the earth bound past - that would spring from this post human conquest of space, would host “exotic life”, that is life that has been intelligently modified and directed and thus superseding natural selection, hereafter consigned to being merely the barbaric aspirant of life, its pre-history. The future of life is increasingly that of an artifact, a synbio commodity and the hard wired guardian of intergalactic political economy - and deep space a far future witness to a capitalism minus (possibly) money or opposition, in which replicant commodity societies without exchange are endlessly constructed but that ceaselessly bear the patented imprint of what gave it ‘life’ in the first place. In this scenario that reverses the mediocrity of the post Copernican world, Earth gets to reclaim its former metropolitan status, however this time around possessed of a Central Bank of the Universe into which all intergalactic bills are paid – it’s all that contradictory and insane.
To make nature ‘capital’ has always been a distant dream of capitalism and one naively aided and abetted by eco economists who put a price on nature by seeking to quantify it as an asset.(See one of the first examples Nature’s Price: the Economics of Mother Earth by Dieren and Hummellinckt). Appearing in 1977, this naturalized stocktaking coincides, not entirely by chance, with the rise of monetarism. Thus nature’s kingdom is arrogantly reduced to the known and knowable, an insolence bordering on hubris and that is asking to be punished. Increasingly squashed within the confines of political economy, the valorization of nature (“nature as art”, in particular, introducing the element of price fluctuation) partakes of its presumption, namely the conscious control of the economy where recurrent crises are dismissed as aberrations which can be rectified but must never be thought of as endemic to the system itself. The reassembling of nature also promises to be free from breakdowns and to deliver eternal life because known systems are inherently reparable. At least that is the ideology. Meanwhile nature’s tempests are becoming more threatening than ever, just as economic crises appear evermore recalcitrant and beyond the power of human kind, short of a revolution, to do much about them.
George Monbiot, struggling to come to terms with a Post Copenhagen world and what it will mean in terms of encouraging climate change deniers, implicitly suggests that it will also lead to an intensification in planetary plunder (the Guardian 5th Jan 2010). However time has been called' like never before, on consumer capitalism and demands for a return to ‘simple reproduction’ no growth economies (aspects of which hark back to the agrarian capitalism of the physiocrats), proliferate - even from within the heart of the state machine (e.g. see the book Prosperity without Growth by Tim Jackson, economics commissioner at the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission). Forced to admit there is such a thing as capitalism, and which is doing all the damage, these zero growth economist still wish to preserve it even though, like the artificial life that will eventually fill the universe, it will be capitalism ‘but not as we know it’. These moral admonishments add up to mere tinkering at best but mostly will result in a do nothing passivity because they avoid getting to grips with the real problem. Hence they will not deter, in the slightest, a resumption of growth on the model of consumer capitalism, and that can now only be sold as desirable if we adopt the attitude of the rapacious, other worldly, dewy eyed terminators who treat the earth as an expendable commodity to be quarried out and then abandoned once exhausted of its raw materials.
There are signs the above mad idea has become more acceptable Post Copenhagen and is no different to the way reaction seeks to resolve problems a revolutionary uprising has failed to acquit. Gracchus Babeuf of The Conspiracy of Equals in the 1790s famously said “we are not of this world”, which certainly did not mean he was embarked on a spiritual voyage. He was looking for a new red world which from today’s perspective could just as well mean the Red Planet. Steven Coutts who wrote a book Lets Move to Mars hailed the recent launch of the US Ares rocket as the beginning of that relocation. His article in The Independent newspaper just over two weeks before the opening of the Copenhagen summit was revealingly titled Red or Dead. James Cameron, the director and digital supremo behind Titanic and Avatar, is also a member of the Mars Club which is for the colonization of the planet. In Total Recall it was possible to take an inner space trip to Mars and so these “new eon” machines cater as much to the virtual ‘spirit’ as they do to a beleaguered humanity in search of salvation in a pressurized city on another planet. They will only be there because the hopes aroused by revolution have been hijacked and turned into a false cosmic potential that is no longer recognizably human. The ‘masters of the universe’, who fell to earth with such a bang from the mid noughties onwards, will, pushed by the technologies of the new frontiers, eventually gear up to devise new financial instruments directed at alleviating the solipsistic hell of the intended new space cadets for whom life on earth has lost all meaning.
The impending sci tech revolution goes from the biggest there has ever been to the smallest, from the nano ‘swallow your doctor’ technology predicted by Feynman in the late 1950s to the truly gargantuan, shrinking the Great Wall of China or the Pyramids to the size of a toy. The latter will require the sort of money only the state can raise. A reborn financial alchemy (against all the odds!) will do the rest making it possible to purchase on credit and on line the go-beyond, be-the-revolution-of-you, consumer technology for this cosmic never never land, with Olaf Stapledon’s book Starmaker set to become the new Space Odyssey and that brings omega within touching distance. The post war suburban dream of fulfilment having collapsed in ruins never to rise again, capital must find a new aim and raison d’etre grander than any previously attempted and that poses the question of final meaning, and likewise ours to possess in a new promised land. A ‘grand theory of everything’ is frequently proclaimed as the holy grail of science. At the end of a long quest, “seeing into the mind of god” (Hawkins) becomes ours to own. The ‘spiritualization’ of science is also capitalism’s last card and ultimate capital asset wherein we find rest in the absolute. In terms of deferred gratification, it regresses psychologically to the era of primitive accumulation and is founded on an unprecedented degree of want, depletion and spiritual exhaustion.
A must read for cosmologists particularly for the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, Starmaker came out in 1937 and in the final encounter with the starmaker it becomes apparent our universe is just one among many other “try outs”, a concept Rees, as a proponent of the multiverse, would thrill to. Yet the need to get off this tiny planet, this hunger to set off on the ultimate journey in search of ‘life and meaning’ is essentially no different from the “journey of a lifetime” as advertised in travel brochures. It is as much an escape from as an escape to - in this instance the dreariness of the rapidly expanding London suburbs that would spread like a rash over the rest of the country following the Second World War. Yet Stapledon is deeply reluctant to go in for a root and branch transformation of the growing mediocrity of everyday suburban life, treating it rather as an oasis, though one beset with frustration and intolerable lack of fulfilment - hence the enfeebled Rimbaudism of the stellar travelogue’s first line so reminiscent of the beginning of A Season in Hell: “One night when I had tasted bitterness I went out onto the hill”. Rimbaud would no doubt add that once copybook beauty had turned to bitterness, his treasure henceforth would be entrusted to hatred, a legitimate reaction and starting out point Stapledon does not know the meaning of.
Chapter 7: COP15 Degrees of Conformity: Art and a Hotter Planet
Mark Lynas & “Six Degrees”/ Lynas as wannabee artist / Cormac MaCarthy & the Great American Novel / Nabokov & Butterflies.
So called quality newspapers now have environmental editors and it was they who kept up a day to day report on the COP15 climate conference. For the duration of the conference The Independent appointed Mark Lynas, the paleo-climatologist, whose book Six Degrees, detailing the devastating consequences for mankind of life on a hotter planet, became the Royal Society’s 2009 book of the year. Like George Monbiot’s Heat first published in 2006, a year before Six Degrees nowhere is capitalism ever mentioned, though it is the elephant in the room in both books. The final chapter of Lynas’s book Choosing our Future is a mild-mannered condemnation of a consumer capitalism that dares not speak its name, the title of the chapter suggesting we are free to take it or leave it – unaware that the refusal of consumerism would massively add to an already massive capitalist crises, though this time preparing the ground for an ecologically radical social revolution. Like practically every living scientist, Lynas is the prisoner of a limited reason and cannot grasp for the life of him, (for that is now what’s at stake), that capitalism is today on a suicide trip and would much prefer to take its own life, and everyone else’s, than consent to the triumph of social reason which inevitably involves dialectical reasoning. The overwhelming majority of scientists find this form of reasoning utterly alien, indeed mad and for them to begin to accept it will mean they will have to go mad before they find a much deeper sanity.
Copenhagen is a living proof of capitalisms’ suicidal tendencies and, though for climate science and ecology it was a major defeat for the social illusions of scientific positivism, it may be what is needed to prompt a much needed, key, rethink amongst scientists. Their Post Copenhagen fit of the blues may be the blue that really matters and not the colour that protest now decks itself with, indicating such a voracious appetite for the arts and performance that it risks swallowing up protest altogether. The worry is that science’s self-criticism will take an artistic direction and art become a substitute for revolution, the IPCC now looking to artists rather than politicians to save the world but which will simply substitute one dead end for another. (The unbelievably idiotic question “Can artists save the world" was asked by the New Statesman (2nd December 2009) on the occasion of the anticipated Earth exhibition was due to open at the Royal Academy to coincide with the climate summit Rethink exhibition in Copenhagen). What, unfortunately for us, we didn’t hear, coming from the mouths of climate scientists, earth scientists, ecologists, sustainable energy engineers etc was talk of fictive bubbles, easily available credit endeavoring to replace a military Keysianism become too wasteful and no longer in capital’s best interest, hyping of assets v a lower rate of return due to a higher organic composition of capital and other, utterly vital, issues. If, in the immediate future, they were to do so, we would be in with a good chance of saving the world – it is that essential this breakthrough happens. But they’d better hurry up------.
Mark Lynas attended the conference as an advisor to the Maldives, a group of Pacific islands (atoll nations) that will disappear beneath the waves even if the climate were to heat up by the ‘safe’ limit of two degrees. He finally blamed China for the failure of COP15 whereas Monbiot blamed America. Neither said “a pox on both your houses”, which is the only honourable position to take. Whilst writing his Copenhagen diary, a long article by him appeared in The Independent 16th December, 2009) on the film of Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road. He saw the film in company with Fanny Armstrong director of Age of Stupid, co-writing the script with her. In the latter, capitalism is mentioned once but almost as an after thought and only just getting through the net of self-censorship.
Six Degrees begins with, to all appearances, an apt quote from Dante who is describing the first of many circles in the afterlife. Though real enough to the medieval imagination, it is not to us, the elaborate details, literary rather than religious fact, and that merely detracts from the unimaginable and very real horror, of a six degree hotter world that could be upon us in as short a time span as 100 years. Having just described a six degree warmer world of fizzing methane hydrates, of water columns shooting 100s of metres into the air and sparks from lighting igniting fireballs that tear across the sky, “the religiously inspired horrors of Dante’s inferno” are , Lynas says, “almost tame in comparison”. A rapidly warming world outruns our imagination and, if Dante is to be read profitably, then we should heed his inspired prediction, which puts him firmly on this side of eternity, that in an actual geological catastrophe on this scale “all our knowledge will perish at the very moment the portals of the future close”. This imagined fossil record of spiritual collapse could also be the psychological abstract for a future in which six degrees warming takes place. Consciousness will black out and what is left of human life will not be recognizably human.
A tour de force of scientific prognosis, the book details the changes, based on the evidence accruing from past geological epochs, that are more than likely to occur with each one degree increase in the average temperature. However there is a hidden yearning in the author of Six Degrees to be something rather more than a mere prophetic chronicler of immanent climate change. Like an ever increasing number of scientists today Lynas wants to be------an artist! And though he cannot get away from the fact that climate change is preventable and since he cannot go street and be a climate activist, (i.e….. the barest minimum of action required across a total field), he can at least waffle on as an art critic and film reviewer---. From this mistaken viewpoint it is art, far more so than science, that will change the world by purportedly seizing the imagination and raising consciousness. This highly conservative view goes against 150 years of a radical ‘art’ history that pointed to its transcendence, not to mention German philosophical idealism at its most innovative and shocking, once, that is, its real substance is laid bare and updated (e.g. Kant and Hegel). At its best, art only promised, it did not deliver. And so it is truly desperate that at the moment of art’s maximum regression back to positions that have long been transcended - a revolutionary process now wrapped in near total silence - that scientists in their droves are climbing aboard the bandwagon, or rather hearse, unawares they are the dupes of a colossal counter revolution that has been gathering strength since the late 1960s.
So Mark Lynas. He says in his review of The Road (the film of Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name) “who knows what it could do” and that in comparison “the leaden anchor of scientific referencing - seems almost prosaic”. The Road is yet another contribution to the genre of post apocalyptic movies that reflects the society we live in and feeds off the mood of growing anxiety. There have been a number of movies that have dealt with what the world would be like following a nuclear war, beginning with On the Beach which we saw in our mid teens. But the TV biopic The Day After shown in the 1980s when the cold war was at its height with star wars, cruise missiles and Greenham Common as background, also reflected the extent to which America was rapidly shifting to a ‘post industrial’ confessional society, at the centre of which lay the construction of meaningful human relationships, despite the fact everything had literally been blown to bits by neo liberalism and could not be knitted together except through a revolutionary coming together. There was no need to drop the bomb because we were already bombed out. And so the art/therapy industry complex was born, and from the metaphor of a post nuclear landscape and the defeat of the workers’ movement there arose, phoenix-like the triumph of neo liberal, confessional sensitivity. Centering on the relationship between father and son, The Road is of the same order, except it goes one better starring such Hollywood ‘greats’ as Robert Duval, the subliminal message being therapy can survive everything you throw at it, and so equally can the ‘new capitalism’.
Likewise the arts. There is something incommensurable, and not merely contradictory, between the unimaginable climate scenarios Lynas depicts in convincing detail drawn from rock samples, sediments, the fossil record etc., and the wilting aesthete’s lesson in film appreciation he gives in The Independent review, implying that the arts seminar will outlast humanity.
The backdrop of a pervasive cannibalism in The Road scares the shit out of him, the ‘c’ word being the unspeakable gastronomic haute cuisine of a six degree rise in temperature. There certainly have been numerous incidents of cannibalism during great famines, but in this script the impression is that it is free market cannibalism in which kids are cooked and served up at a post apocalypse McDonald’s for cannibals. The devastation is a cover for basic free market principles in which pure markets in human flesh operate unopposed, free from state interference, man as meat the staple of the new service economy in which the consumer is potentially the consumed in a very real sense. In fact there is no state at all in The Road only anarchy of the worst sort. Once climate change really kicks in, the state is bound to react in an increasingly authoritarian, brutal manner and the bourgeois democratic state based on an ideology of “natural justice” (and which is also not just an empty word, devoid of actual content) will become a distant memory. Beyond this much, it is impossible to say what will happen. However it won’t just simply disappear from the scene.
Of the death of the novel, Lynas knows nothing or what drove it to its extinction and for it to live on thereafter, an endlessly replicating shadow of its former self. Though Cormac McCarthy professes to prefer the company of scientists to that of artists, and which he gives as his reason for frequently lunching at the Santa Fe Institute founded by the quantum physicist Murray Gell-Mann, he still remains a traditional littérateur unable to push his preference, already hinted at in Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads of 1798, into vital, new territory. By virtue of being an artist (though a reclusive one, which only adds to his mystique and is not the same as seeking to remain anonymous and clearly signals a rejection of roles and categorization), whatever McCarthy touches acquires value, and his dime store typewriter recently sold for $250,000. His novel No Country for Old Men was made into a Hollywood movie and Oprah Winfrey chose The Road as the April 2007 selection for her Book Club, eventually interviewing the author on her show. Which only goes to show, there is no show business like the show business of Apocalypse. Both The Road and 2012 (the film of the book appearing at the same time as the film of The Road) are now best sellers.
McCarthy is by no means as far down the road as Nabokov, a Russian emigre who was also in flight from “the great experiment” of Russian art but whose effects he couldn’t entirely shake off. Becoming a lepidopterist was the only way he could keep faith with it, without ever having to admit as much, above all to himself. How would Lynas deal with Nabokov the necessarily bad writer though excellent lepidopterist or explain how, towards the end of his life and possibly under the influence of the late sixties, these compartments, that up to then had been kept separate, threatened to collapse in on one another and each to good effect potentially. Would Lynas, as an aspiring literary columnist, be in awe of the commentaries of that prat Martin Amis who castigates Joyce’s Finnegans Wake for its incoherence, fearing it ends in the death of the novel, its fictions and accompanying conventions - situation, character, narrative structure, plot etc? Both Amis and Nabokov are right about the latter but so far Amis (living through the most conservative of times) has been able to resist its pull, unlike Nabokov. Moreover, Amis cannot even begin to deal with Nabokov the lepidopterist - but, there again, neither could Nabokov. Had the pursuit of literature collapsed for Nabokov, (and it almost did), it would also have massively impacted on his approach to butterflies, probably even compelling him to float like one himself, a new world of flowers and opportunity appearing before his eyes in place of sheaves of blank typing paper. The dictum “we are what we behold” could have taken on a new meaning, allowing us to denature the species barrier and so alter, in as yet untried and untied ways, the cartesian dualism of subject and object. Nabokov could well have ended up identifying with butterflies so completely that he became more of a person as a result, bringing a completer self to bear on the issue of conservation and investing it with new meanings. But by now we have probably lost Lynas because we have strayed too far from fiction and the traditions that idolatrize it, unchallenged conventions being a contributing factor to climate change because they buttress the status quo in countless, hidden ways.
The tradition of Eng Lit has cast an appalling spell over the UK but so has Am Lit in America. How many Americans radicals still want to write “the great American novel”? Let’s face it: the great American novel really began and ended with Melville and Hawthorne and everything since has paled in comparison even those of merit like Fitzgerald and perhaps occasionally Mailer – when not a novelist - (e.g. the Situationists in the early 1960s thought The White Negro was interesting as equally they said the same of Truffaut’s Four Hundred Blows whilst none the less adamantly attacking novels and new wave cinema)! The novel, of course, still remains a dead end, and Cormac MaCarthy, as the latest example, proves it despite the reams of pure bullshit written on the matter since the end of the Second World War. It’s still far better to drop MaCarthy and Salinger etc. for Emmet Groggan’s souped-up histrionics in Ringolevio.
Chapter 8. COP15: Art, Science, Capitalism and Coral Reefs
Oceans acidification and the Commons / Natural England and a Lost Life / Radical Nature & other Exhibits / Steve Jones & Coral / Comments by Steve Jones on Nietzsche, Anarchism and Soviet Russia
Hardly a month goes by without articles appearing in the press warning of the imminent destruction of coral reefs and what this catastrophic event will mean in terms of loss of biodiversity and employment. During COP15 a report compiled by Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage was published by the European Project on Ocean Acidification. It showed that ocean acidification was increasing at a faster rate than at any time in the last 55 million years and depleting planktonic species at the base of the food chain. Coral reefs are the first major eco system that is likely to be wiped out by rising sea temperatures (causing the algae upon which coral depend to produce toxic oxygen compounds) and ocean acidification which will cause aragonite, a form of calcium carbonate needed by marine organisms, to drop from 60-80% by 2095. Coral reefs support ¼ of all life on earth and are nurseries of evolution exporting biodiversity to other ecosystems, recent research having shown, through study of fossil organisms from the Cambrian period 500 million years ago, that they were responsible for 50% more species than other shallow water environments. A billion people are also dependent upon coral reefs for their livelihood and nowhere else on earth are people’s lives and the maintenance of biodiversity, so critically interdependent and so immediately threatened in the near future.
The dire warnings are invariably accompanied by an apocalyptic language grown meaningless through reiteration, this talking cure no substitute at all for never once daring to mention the root cause of the destruction of coral reefs: capitalism. Helen Phillips chief executive of Natural England which co-sponsored the report said “this is a conservation challenge of unprecedented scale”. Three months later to the day she would be called yet again to the do-nothing, ‘let us all pray’, conservation pulpit to announce on the publication of the Natural England study Lost Life, that 500 species since the !st century AD had died out in England, all but a dozen in the last 200 years. On this occasion she said “we seem to have an endless capacity to get engaged about rainforests but this reminds us conservation begins at home”. This is mere talk because the last thing Natural England wants is engagement on a mass scale because it could prove uncontrollable and most likely spill over into an assault upon every aspect of capitalism. The action that it does call for is a fatal enervation. Proceeding from the state with probably some help from private companies, it amounts to a form of public/private eco partnership, the “step change” that Tom Tew, Natural England’s chief scientist, said was required to halt England’s extinction event as unrealistic as that of Jon Baxter of Scottish Heritage demanding “aggressive and immediate cuts in CO2” in the grotesque hope COP15 would deliver just that when the report on ocean acidification, opportunely coinciding with COP15, came out.
It is becoming daily more apparent how little we know about the last and greatest Commons of all: the world’s seas and oceans. For example, marine biologists have surveyed less than 1% of the 50,000 Sea Mountains, or sea mounts as they are known in marine terminology. It is fair to say the seas are capturing the public imagination as never before and when this happens it constitutes a danger. The seas therefore have to be made safe from the peril this represents. To illustrate this point we have selected two counter posed examples drawn from the ‘arts’ and ‘sciences’ and which serves to show how the seas are being domesticated in the interests of capitalism under the guise of doing the opposite.
The ‘art’ of coral reefs
Wolf Hilbert, an American architect, is the first case in point. His Autopia featured in the Barbican’s Radical Nature exhibition of summer 2009 (a forerunner of the Royal Academy’s Earth exhibition coinciding with COP15) and was especially commended by Liz Else, an associate editor of the New Scientist. A spiral shaped island onto which material can accrete, Autopia is an automatic, short circuiting utopia, produced by a low level current passed through a 12 meter structure called The Lotus that has been positioned on the sea floor. The electricity triggers a chemical reaction which precipitates calcium carbonate from out of the sea water. Once deposited on the structure, corals find it seemingly irresistible. Hilbert has sold the concept to various tourist resorts around the world to repopulate reefs and protect shorelines. This is a mere drop in the ocean and the cost and the effort involved make it impossible to do except on a small scale. Hilbert is merely profiting from growing reefs for tourists and most divers are unaware of the problems coral face, particularly as holiday tour operators tend to visit reefs that are in better condition.
Though he would aggressively deny it, Hilbert, in the last analysis, is in league with powerful economic interests that have no problem harmonizing dirty emissions with scenic beauty and who search for ways to disguise the scale of the problem. Posing as a master fixer of damaged coral, Hilbert is the greenwash architect of its destruction and should be hung on the spot, a judgment that is poles apart from the extremely silly one expressed in the New Scientist that recommended giving “the man a prize for art and saving coral: this is real radical nature”.!!!!!!!! Yer shitting me! This only goes to show that when it comes to making sense of so-called avant-garde art, which increasingly mesmerizes them, scientists have everything to learn and are easily duped. Not only that, but in the presence of the neo avant-garde, common sense flies out of the window and basic scientific circumspection abandoned. In a manner of speaking, the neo avant-garde is for scientists what biblical literalism is for Baptists and is proving nearly as hard to combat and with similar drastic consequences.
The ‘science’ of coral reefs
In 2007 Steve Jones published a book titled Coral. A Pessimist in Paradise that is punctuated with mainly mythological references but also contains interesting, though safe, asides on Gauguin, Melville, Twain, Stevenson, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Dylan Thomas & Ballantyne the author of Coral Island, the last book appearing twelve months before The Origin of the Species. The science of Coral is situated within a more total context than would have been the case even thirty years ago and reflects how discrete scientific topics have had to open their doors, recapitulating, in a manner of speaking, the sweep of ‘romantic science’ prior to its fragmentation and disenchantment under industrial capitalism. However the ‘romanticizing’ tendency goes no further than this, despite Karl Marx receiving a mention, the slow building of reefs arising from the death of countless unsung polyp lives, providing a metaphor for the maturing might of the anonymous proletariat. The same has happened regarding scientific biographies, the lives of great scientists now more fully fleshed out than in the past and become almost free form, as though every fact counts but that also fail to explode as they should. Making a show of breathing life they are still born, and though reflecting a greater yearning for a totality than even in the 1960s or 1970s, they never issue a “call to arms”, indeed are leagues away from doing so.
Jones is in no doubt that coral reefs are massively imperilled but since then forecasts have become apocalyptic, the latest (cited above, but which bears repetition) by Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage, opportunely rolled out during the Copenhagen summit and that showed the worlds oceans were becoming acidic at a faster rate than at any time in the last 55 million years. Again the call for “immediate and aggressive cuts in CO2” fizzles out because neither body even dreams of addressing themselves to the real drivers of fundamental change - an insurgent people. Laughing this notion to scorn as they are bound to, they in turn become laughable. And suddenly puny because unable to see in reefs an allegory of struggle and a pointer to where real power is to be found. How much more their findings could have been made to dance, how much more they could have helped prompt a much needed change in perspective, had they cited Marx’s metamorphosing of coral.
In classical mythology the misunderstood creatures of coral reefs became the stuff of legends and are spoken of as well nigh indestructible, only Hercules able to behead the Hydra. What the ancients had intuited were stem cells which also promise immortality in our time. In Coral, Jones says “the end of the world in its natural condition could be closer than we think”. And so the Professor of Genetics at University College, London, also swells the growing ranks of people whose secret lives are a torment and who must constantly fear breakdown and madness. Driven by the logic of suicide capitalism they see the end is in sight and yet must deny its existence, like their lives depended upon it, surrendering to the ruling ideology, not because they believe in it, but because that is all that stands between them and utter collapse . And so death becomes life, this perverse parody of dialectics a form of mental illness rather than an example of “the science of the sciences” at higher play. This post human reinvention of life will arise like a plucked, singed phoenix from the scorched earth left by capitalism.
And so it should come as no surprise that Jones hypostatises capitalism, treating it as a natural fact, though at the same time unable to entirely hide from acknowledging it is an historical one. Like stem cells, capitalism also strives to be immortal and the elaborate imagery Jones deploys to illustrate his arguments merely underpin his prejudices. The sea becomes a “central bank to which all other investors turn for deposits and withdrawal” the “mountains of Texas represent but a modest investment in the carbon bank”, the crocodile that remembers not to snap at the plover picking leeches from between its teeth is a personification of money which contains within it “a memory of past bargains”. In the same way “the cell signals involved in symbiosis reassure each party that the other has paid the rent”, a way of putting things that suggests the rentier society is poised to take full possession of ourselves. And so it goes on, the book a creature of its time like the aberrant life to come and marked by an outlook that perished, though maybe only temporarily, with the onset of the credit crises: “Unlike global capitalism though symbiosis thinks only in the short term (huh!). It has no concept of assets held in hypothetical form or of benefits long deferred”. This is just economic jargon and “assets held in a hypothetical form” could mean anything from derivatives, to a Damien Hirst, to the housing market, to fictive bubbles in general. The science of coral reefs aspires to be impartial, but Jones’s manner of presenting it gets jumbled up with so much other bad shit that it makes a mockery of his view “scientists have nothing to add to philosophy apart from the facts”.
Though we have some acquaintance with genetics we are not experts. Nor are we experts on the flora and fauna of coral reefs, so we are unable to fault, and instead delight, in those parts of the book that deal with them. But we can take exception to his remarks on Nietzsche for example, a philosopher Jones has some sympathy for, when he says “for Nietzsche and his fellow Social Darwinists the rich deserved their good fortune”. This is absolute crap, for Nietzsche had nothing but contempt for their philistinism and morality and thought they were not fitted by nature to rule. Though he unhesitatingly accepted evolution, Nietzsche did think Darwin’s attitude to nature was too prudential, too influenced by utilitarianism, which he abhorred, and not ‘wilful’ enough, above all when it came to human beings.
Moreover Jones’s concept of money as moral coin, involving an obligation, has a Nietzschean ring to it; as if at some point he had read passages in The Genealogy of Morals that arrive at a similar conclusion. However he manifestly does not go on from that, nor see, that the linked concept of “the new innocence” necessarily implies the abolition of money and its basis in political economy, a conclusion, which, as in so many other things, Nietzsche failed to arrive at though it is promised in his texts and still requires others to put him right so he can be ‘left’. The same goes for Jones’s silly and stupid remarks on anarchism, the propaganda of the deed giving “a notable impetus to the bloodbaths of the 20th century". And what are we to make of the following - "theSlavic experiment in mutualism that followed the Russian revolution failed. Cash did not as predicted, disappear and in Russia roubles and inequality still flourish. Like Russia, the reefs - and the cell - depend not on mutual aid but on greed and mutual exploitation”. It is so crude it’s barely worth commenting on and yet is so typical. And what are we to make of the following, seemingly contradictory, sentence: “Modern capitalism takes part in a dance of death” or his praise for the efficacy of markets in delivering providential change, like he hopes the carbon market will do. This naïve faith mirrors E.O. Wilson’s belief that the hour of the biodiverse revolution has come, ushered in by the wave of a wand because that’s what the ruined idea of “the magic of the market” now amounts to.
Chapter 9: Postscript and a Million Climate Jobs NOW!
Or the error of thinking ecologically responsible behaviour can come via the trade unions and the state. The above pamphlet put out by the Campaign Against Climate Change (CCC) came out in November 2009 a month prior to COP15. On its cover there is a photo of the occupied Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight, a non-union plant…………..
The debate over real and false needs has to rage like never before because all human life now depends on it. This life-and-death question rapidly lost ground from the late 1960s onwards. But rather than signalling the nearness of an extinction event that could equal, and even surpass, the Permian extinction, to its everlasting distinction it did ask “Is there life before death”? (A King Mob slogan sprayed on the side of a big church) Asphyxiated by consumerism, our commodified lives were that of the still born and all we did was go through the motions of living, like we had been removed from our selves – “see to it, oh my absent life” as Rimbaud said. And had the revolution of our dreams materialised, there would have been no need of a Copenhagen Summit and the world would not now be staring death in the face.
This revolution was pitched at the machinery of alienated desire. And though it was not generally conceived in an ecological form, which would have been its necessary result. Though supporting the occupation of factories, we also wanted either the redirection of production or the wholesale closure of factories that were not producing needed articles, that sustained life rather than destroyed it, and which certainly did not include cars, televisions, and aircraft - to name only the most obvious. We did not object overmuch to their ecological hazard, rather that they were the material symbols of the dead life, an objectification of everything we found most abhorrent and were in revolt against. This radical change-over had to come from the workers themselves: no one else was permitted to do it for them. This voluntary code of conduct went without saying and was very widespread. The very idea of imposing change from on top, such as preached by vanguardist parties, was unhesitatingly rejected as counter revolutionary. Welling up from deep within, it gives an idea of how ingrained this libertarian spirit then was. And so to turn from this project, the grandest in human history, to the One Million Climate Jobs NOW! Pamphlet is to crash to earth with a bang, it is so humdrum and pedestrian. There is simply no place for dreams here - nor much history of the sort that really matters.
It abounds in statist illusions and beneath the surface their lurks all the unreconstructed prejudices of old, Jonathan Neale (who was chiefly responsible for putting the pamphlet together) in an editorial in the Socialist Worker newspaper sniping at anarchists for their localism (?) as if state orientated vanguard parties are the only ones capable of seeing beyond their noses. In fact this pamphlet rather proves the opposite. Are we seriously to believe that TUC and the Labour Party can be restored to their former non-existent glory “the precedent in this country - when the unions founded the Labour party, and then used it to fight for a health service and a welfare state”. In this version of trade union/Labour party led struggle the tail wags the dog because this time around it “means leadership from the top – with an extraordinary unwillingness to compromise”. This is asking for the impossible and admitted as much when, a few lines further on, we come across the old saw “in the end, we also need union members prepared to make their national leaders act”. Meant to be the ultimate pragmatic document with the widest possible appeal, it merely maximizes illusions.
The new climate labour force proposed in this pamphlet will be a totally unionised one. Created from the top down over, any initiative from below in no time at all will be choked by bureaucracy. This typically blinkered approach prevents the authors from recognising that the biggest shake-up the building labour force ever underwent in recent times, creating a broadly conservation minded labour force out of nothing and necessity, happened during the late sixties and seventies and was closely related to the squatting movement. This event more than any other provided an informal entree for non builders into the building scene and lay totally outside the trade union framework. Unlike the mainly family orientated squatting movement that took place after World War Two, contemporary squatting afforded something of an escape route for youth in revolt against their background, the family, pointless work and mindless degrees, the merchandise of the university factories. The needs of this de facto climate labour force were few and its carbon footprint practically nil. In this open ended atmosphere, women found it much easier to take a turn on the tools than they would have going through traditional recruitment channels.
UCATT & TGWU, the building workers’ unions (either engaged, or recently engaged, in the first, and last, national strike in 1972) looked askance upon this development and when not perplexed, were inclined to dismiss it not merely as a scab labour force but as a force for evil generally. It shook more conservatively minded building workers to the marrow, one carpenter we knew, and who had learned his trade in the Clyde shipyards, convinced it was squatters, and not council employees, that destroyed toilets because they much preferred to shit on the floor. Worse still, squats were also charnel houses, dead babies being disposed of beneath the floor boards. And yet he would train apprentices off his own bat because it was socially the right thing to do, and not because it entitled him to claim money from the state. But he would have had no time for the electrician we also knew who had half the back of his head blown off when, out of the goodness of his heart, he had attempted to wire a squat directly up to the street mains so no one would ever have to pay for electricity. The electricity consumed in this way would have been used to keep warm and for cooking. Little would have gone on consumer gadgetry, this something for nothing culture turning out, in retrospect, to be a life saver, to which all due respect, and more, is owed. And so it was far easier to discuss the end of the commodity economy, abolition of the wages system and production for use. Had this pro-climate, before-the-fact, critical mass really been given its head, and its anti consumerist tendency ratcheted up rather than scaled down, the world would not be in the dire straights it is now in.
From questioning property rights was but a short step to critiquing architecture, town planners, urbanism and roles in general. An unconscious but no less radical dialectical theory and practise thrived in these work spaces. In the mid sixties, as students, we were for the progressive ruining of cities. Rather than an earthquake, we were for an earth shaking momentum. Bombed from the bottom up not the top down, the insurrectionary shanty towns of our desires would be improvised on their former foundations. The last thing these free range cities would have been is carbon cities - or like the feral cities of post apocalypse nightmares as featured in an increasing number of blockbusting Hollywood biopics. In their place we wanted to create a fraternal wilderness of animal and vegetable freedom in which the greening of these living cities, already brimming with natural novelties, would never be an issue. On the alternative building sites of the 1970s and 1980s these visions were still meaningful and up for discussion, though in a far more realistic way, for it seemed to us we were engaged, on many different levels, on the task of millennial preparations. Perhaps these were the last moments of an attainable hope. Let’s hope not!
Amongst other things, we would put in panes of glass, quickly knocking up sash windows, dowelling joints to save on costs, replacing tiles and roofs rather than insulating roof spaces with wrap. We were more concerned with keeping the climate out than saving it. A leaky house meant it let the rain in: since then the meaning has changed and is now more likely to mean a poorly insulated house, one that leaks heat and needlessly contributes to atmospheric CO2. Quality DIY was then the key, not cutting edge climate technology like secondary glazing, insulation of cavity walls modern and highly efficient boilers that drain off CO2.
Occasionally a building inspector might be called, particularly once squatting became more bureaucratized and subject to control by local councils. (The latest slogan, touted by Camelot, a private company, is “protects through occupation”). Then inspectors were brought in largely to monitor fire risk and would check to see if fire doors and lobbies were in place. However there was nothing like the army of “rigorous building inspectors” proposed by the One Million Climate Jobs Now that would oversee the much tighter building regulations required for low carbon housing. The unsaid of the latter proposal - a very serious omission indeed and which negates the purpose of the pamphlet - is that energy needs are bound to rise to meet the needs of a runaway turbo-consumerism that is literally destroying life on earth. The makeshift habitations that we worked on were, in comparison, open to the elements and could afford to be because they were housing the ‘climate friendly’ whose needs, beyond the bare minimum, were few. With the aim of conserving nature, it is precisely the latter that is designed out of zero carbon households, to then be reinvented, at the pressing of a hot button, as an electronic mimic on LCD screens. The self ceases to exist in a social sense and becomes merely an inane communication terminal from which the connection of history has been stripped out. Low emission homes by definition become machines which consume ever greater amounts of energy.
Essentially, One Million Climate Jobs Now! is a Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ party by rote, phantasm, to be implemented by a sclerotic trades unionism fixated on a social democratic corporatism harking back to the American New Deal of the 1930s and more especially, the post second world war PM Atlee’s Labour government in the UK. For sure the SWP like most other political parties of whatever hue and persuasion they recognise the seriousness of climate change but without delving too deeply because if they did, their basic raison d’etre would be blow sky high. On the simplest level it won’t do to try and bend Marx and Engels into profound eco theorists when the main thrust of their theorising on this level was in the Hegelian mode of gaining control over nature and not interacting with nature. Though Marx made comments regarding soil depreciation through over use they were minor asides in his later works, saying “capitalist production….disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and earth” commenting on “worn out soil” as intensive farming began to kick in. Subsequently a huge demand in fertilisers developed made up by natural fertilising processes inherent in sea bird excrement and which today would be referred to as organic. The fall out created “guana imperialism” as European nations colonised small, bird rich, islands to market the product. On an empirical basis perhaps Engels had more to say on a sympathetic eco level particularly his analysis of the Irish famine in the 1840s but again these are relatively minor passages. For sure all these asides smack of contemporary fears but we really shouldn’t make too much out of them. To interpret Marx and Engels’s like this is a disservice merely revealing the poverty of contemporary Trotskyism when it is obvious contemporaries like Nietzsche, Ruskin, William Morris and Debbie Hardcastle were much more clued-in on nature and ecological matters before the science was ever invented and the latter two figures in more potentially revolutionary ways when shorn of the limitations of their times.
What we can say is that capitalism is reaching an impasse perhaps without historical precedent and could it be we are reaching the moment when the mechanisms of exploitation and reproduction of exploitation are being stretched to breaking point? Therefore is a new boom, even an eco sustainable boom enduring for any length of time possible? Since the collapse of the long post Second World War boom there’s been little theoretical probing on this conundrum mesmerised as most were with neo liberalism now biting a blood thirsty dust. To be sure suicide capitalism is an excellent description of the dire straits we are in but needs fleshing out more incisively though what we have here is merely part of a beginning though the actual terminology – “suicide capitalism” appeared via an anonymous leaflet quite some time ago during the 1995 French public sector strikes. As a postscript this text was to end on the Corus steel works closure in the north east of England – see “A Chorus for Corus” on the RAP web. Instead the end was completed before the beginning.
Stuart & David Wise: Spring 2010