Aberystwyth Transitions Reading Group Blog

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What can climate change tell us about Zombie films?

Chris Shaw’s article ‘What zombie films tell us about climate change: there’s no happy ending’ claims that in zombie films no new order is established after the status quo is disrupted by the dead rising. Posted on both the Guardian and New Left Project’s websites, Chris’ article is taken straight from his PhD thesis. Though the writing style is still ‘tainted’ with ‘academese’, I commend him for having made the effort to -transpose his research into something more palatable for the public domain – successfully, I think. That said, I’m not sure the zombie film analogy totally works: there is a new order in zombie films, as Chris admits. Although, there’s no happy ending (unless you’re a zombie!), arguably there is an uncomfortable synthesis between being and non-being. For there to be a zombie film at all (for any narrative to exist) there has to be resitance, all be that a seemingly ever diminishing group of humans.

For the most part, this article is a head-nodder: it’s easy to agree with most of what Chris argues. But does his core thesis hold up? Is putting numbers on climate change part of an overt elite strategy to divert attention from the political and social order that has given rise to the crisis? These 2 and 4 degree markers have surely been useful to activist mobilisations such as the camp for climate action, even though the movement’s mantra identified the problem as not within the bounds of techno-fix: ‘System change not climate change’. Didn’t quoting parts per million of carbon and so on help us to visualise climate change without diverting out attention from the political? Arguably campaigns such as ’10:10′ make Chris’s point, but I don’t think the issue is so cut and dried (like a zombie). Constructing climate change as phenomenon with a dangerous limit may be a political act, but ‘overt may be too simplistic an analysis?

Direct and indirect experience of extreme weather events appear to be dragging climate change from some distant 2 or 4 degree future into the here and now of everyday life. I’d agree with Chris that maybe dumping – or at least downplaying – the idea of limits is strategically at least a good idea. And I note the synergy between this article and the work Tom Crompton, WWF and PIRC are doing on values. Final observation on the article, though, and I’m afraid it’s a depressing one: Chris thinks a new order will give way to millions of different endings, albeit some happier than others. I fear that elites remain so powerful and people so unprepared that capitalism and its state committees will enforce a single unhappy ending across the globe for a very long time to come. Oh, if only we could dig up a politically discriminating zombie horde, a revolutionary if deceased proletariat! Now there’s a movie I’d buy popcorn to watch.

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Marxism + Anarchism = Love

Last month, a small but inspired group of us met to discuss ‘Why a Radical Geography Must Be Anarchist’ by Simon Springer. Perhaps more so than with any other reading we have done lately, our response to this largely entailed a collective nodding of heads in agreement. Springer very eloquently pinpoints the issues that have led to anarchism being ignored in radical geography, issues such as being conflated with free market capitalism or being associated with chaos. Anarchism entails neither of these things. It retains a strong anti-capitalist stance and at the same time places value on organization, though importantly, not hierarchical organization. Nor can anarchism be reduced to an anti-state ideology. Instead, it is about resisting all forms of domination, and about “actively reinventing the everyday through a desire to create new forms of organization and ‘enacting horizontal networks instead of top-down structures like states, parties, or corporations; networks based on principles of decentralized, non-hierarchical consensus democracy’” (p.7, drawing on Graeber 2002, p. 70).

We discussed examples of how such organization works in practice drawing on experiences, and various issues with this mode of organizing and how they are overcome. It was easy to see that although anarchist modes of organization have their issues, so do hierarchical ones (rather obviously), and this alone is not reason enough to prefer one mode over another.

The Marxist approach, has, as Springer notes, dominated radical geography to the almost total exclusion of other perspectives, barring some headway made by feminist geography (though much to my frustration this continues to be conflated with a concern for women’s rights whereas it is a much deeper critique of approach). The issue with this hegemony of perspective is that it shuts down important possibilities for other types of radical analysis, particularly anarchism, which without a doubt is a valuable and valid radical approach. The lack of acceptance of anarchism as an idea within the academic world is problematic not only for the value and integrity of the academic endeavour but also for its applicability to the realities surrounding us. Springer makes a case for using anarchism as a theory to understand contemporary political movements and positions.

Perhaps the most intriguing outcome of this discussion for me was that it allowed me to more fully embrace David Harvey’s marxism-inspired ideas! such as those we discussed earlier in relation to the talk on Rebel Cities. This outcome perhaps seems antithetical to what Simon Springer intended, but I actually think it is not. The conclusion I came to was that my issues with the Marxist critique have not been about the structural conditions and capitalist system which runs on credit and disempowers the citizen. These aspects of the critique I accept whole-heartedly. My issue with the Marxist analysis has been the determination to group people into categories of bourgeoisie and proletariat, an oversimplification of both identity and politics, and a disempowering and totalitarian act in itself. By demanding uniformity and allegiance to the cause, Marxist excludes the diversity of possible interpretations as well as the diversity of potential counteractions and insurrections. An anarchist perspective makes space for these multiple approaches and through doing so provides I think, a more realistic possibility of response, one that does not involve lumping everyone into large undifferentiated categories which are personally unsatisfactory, limiting and disempowering. Whereas the Marxist solution to the problems of capitalism and neoliberalism does seem to represent, as Springer claims, the replacement of one totalitarian system with another, anarchism very deliberately eschews this idea in favour of a more complex set of relations, and smaller and slower solutions. Frustrating perhaps for those eager for revolution, but in my mind, a much more (to use that awful word) sustainable approach in the long-run.

Having said all this, my conclusion would be that in spite of this quite heavy-handed critique of Marxist perspectives within geography, the critique is not actually of these perspectives but of their hegemony and domination over the discourse to the exclusion of other ideas, namely anarchism. Although I found Springer’s critique very effective, it did not at all make me want to throw the Marxist approach out. Indeed, it strengthened the Marxist critique in my mind as a necessary component of understanding the structural and systemic conditions that lead to the problems and crises of capitalism, a necessary understanding with then for me strengthens the value of the anarchist ideas and approaches as possible ways of responding to these problems. In my mind then, Marxism and Anarchism emerge as highly complementary bedfellows: One providing a valuable basis for understanding the powerful forces that shape society, and the other providing intellectual and practical solutions to responding to hegemony and domination of all kinds.