Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Art World? More Like SeaWorld: The Use of Animals as Objects (as opposed to Subjects) of Art from Dali to Duke Riley

originally posted on CounterPunch


While non-human animals (e.g. the bulls and horses depicted in the caves of Lascaux) have been subjects of art for tens of thousands of years, in the past few decades living animals have become not mere subjects but objects of art. Unlike two or three dimensional representations of animals, or even dead animals (the stuffed goat central to Robert Rauschenberg's "Monogram," or Joseph Beuys' dead hare, for instance), the use of living animals in contemporary art is becoming more and more common. In just a few days this month alone, two well-publicized art works were presented in two different parts of New York City using living animals as material. Maurizio Cattelan (whose sculpture "Him" just sold at auction for over 17 million dollars) had his 1994 installation "Warning! Enter at Your Own Risk ... Thank You," which includes a live donkey, restaged at the Frieze art fair; and Duke Riley's "Fly by Night," which involves 2,000 pigeons flying about over the East River with lights attached to their ankles, began its six week run. 


While many artists and critics maintain that the question of whether this use of animals is abuse or not is difficult to answer definitively, it is hardly debatable that the employment of animals (beings incapable of consenting to spending days, weeks, or merely hours, confined to, and on display in, galleries or museums - or, in the case of Riley's piece, performing tricks over the East River) is exploitative, reflecting a form of domination that does not simply regard living animals as material so much as it deforms animals into material (into things that legendary artist Richard Serra described, in the statement accompanying his 1966 work "Live-Animal Habitat," as comparable to objects such as sticks, stones, and paint). 


In a historical period witnessing sustained public outrage over the abusive treatment of animals by entities such as SeaWorld, the use of animals as material in the art world raises, among others, the question of whether art galleries, museums, and their wealthy patrons (not to mention the general public) have any reason to regard the cultural production of the art world as being somehow qualitatively superior to such ostensibly "lowbrow" (and abusive) institutions as zoos and so-called marine mammal parks. (In many respects, the claims to aesthetic and ontic seriousness that pervade the art world make their installations and performances qualitatively worse. For, more than simple emanations of the economic order cannibalizing the planet, these institutions serve - on multiple levels of abstraction - as this order's ideologues and enablers.)


While the use of live animals as objects of art seems to be more common than ever in this second decade of the third millennium, and is central to such iconic works of contemporary art as Joseph Beuys' 1974 piece "I Like America and America Likes Me" (in which the artist spent three days in a gallery with a wild coyote), the practice is less than 80 years old. The use of living animals as objects of art, as opposed to subjects of art or objects of mass entertainment, can be arguably traced to 1938, when Salvador DalĂ­ (ridiculed for his self-advancing proclivities by other surrealists by the anagrammatic nickname Avida Dollars) presented his installation "Rainy Taxi." In this work, a precursor to Edward Keinholz's 1964 "Backseat Dodge '38," two mannequins were placed in a taxi. A shark-headed chauffeur sat in front. In the back seat, surrounded by lettuce and chicory, living snails crawled over the female. While Dali's use of living animals was not widely emulated at first, by the 1960s the use of live animals in the art world became more common. 


The controversial Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch's religiously-oriented "actions" began, for instance, in 1962. Initially involving the butchering of carcasses, viewers of his performances would ultimately see professional butchers, overseen by veterinarians, publicly slaughter animals. And while it may seem counterintuitive, Nitsch, whose Orgien Mysterien Theater hasn't incorporated public slaughters since 1998, is regarded by himself, and many others, as an animal protector.  Only killing animals already slated for commercial slaughter, Nitsch regards the horrors involved in commercial farming as "the biggest crime in our society." 


By the mid 1960s, as previously mentioned, contemporary giant Richard Serra was using rats and mice as objects in his "Live-Animal Habitat." And by the end of the decade, in the year the US symbolically penetrated the moon with its flag pole, Jannis Kounellis produced his now legendary installation "Horses," an installation that involved tethering a dozen horses to the walls of a Roman garage. 


In the years following Beuys' iconic 1974 piece, live animals continued to feature as objects/materials of art. Among the most controversial of these is Kim Jones' 1976 "Rat Piece," in which Jones burned three caged rats to death in a Los Angeles performance. A year later, in 1977, Tom Otterness (known mostly these days for the cartoonish public sculptures for which he's paid millions) created "Shot Dog Film," in which he adopted a dog from an animal shelter, tied it to a fence, and shot it to death. As the 20th century came to a close, and the 21st got underway, the use of animals as objects, as opposed to subjects, of artworks appeared to be more prevalent than ever. 


In the year 2000, for instance, Marco Everistti exhibited his installation, "Helena and El Pescador," in Denmark. Intended as a critique of the brutality of the world, the installation was comprised of ten blenders, each containing water and a live goldfish. Attendees were given the choice of turning on the blenders and killing the fish, or pardoning them. Two fish were soon liquefied. Ultimately, the blenders were unplugged. And while many have condemned Everistti for placing vulnerable creatures in harm's way, replicating the brutality he was critiquing, the counterargument - that it is a bit ridiculous to get all bent out of shape by the killing of a few goldfish while socially accepted things, like the vastly more violent commercial fishing industry, and commercial farming industry, among other industries, are busily contributing to the sixth great extinction - is not entirely unpersuasive. 


At any event, while it may not be difficult to find some merit in Marco's "Helena," or in his more recent work involving living goldfish, or in Nitsch's work, it's hard to find much merit at all in the work incorporating animals of international graffiti mystery artist Banksy. Though the most recent one is already a decade old, Banksy has produced at least two artworks that use live animals as material. In a 2003 exhibition, in East London, he included a work comprised of pigs spray-painted to look like police, a cow painted with Andy Warhol faces, and sheep spray-painted in the black and white stripes of concentration camp inmates. And at the 2006 Barely Legal exhibition in Los Angeles, attended by such celebrities as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, his installation "Elephant in the Room" incorporated a then-38-year-old elephant named Tai. Intended to bring awareness to global poverty, the literal elephant was spray-painted to match the pink floral pattern of the room's wallpaper. 


In "Elephant in the Room," Banksy not only subjected Tai to the violence of capture, being painted, and to the indignity of being displayed as a painted object. On top of this, the paint turned out to be toxic - adding further injury. While "Elephant in the Room" was the subject of protest, and the toxic paint was scrubbed off, considerable irony inheres in using an elephant in such a way in order to bring awareness to global poverty, since poverty is but an effect of an economic order that turns people, as well as nearly everything else, into commodities - into things.


A year after Banksy's "Elephant in the Room," the late Mike Kelley (one of the most influential American artists of the early 21st century) produced his installation "Petting Zoo." Based on the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorra, "Petting Zoo" incorporated, among other objects, live goats, sheep, and ponies. And rather than merely looking at these creatures, viewers were invited to pet the animals (according to the statement accompanying the piece, this is supposed to be relaxing). As problematic as "Petting Zoo" may have beeen, however, Kelley's and Banksy's works seem benign compared to Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas' infamous 2007 installation (in which a starving a dog was tied to a wall, just out of reach of a bowl of dog food), or the artworks made from living animals created by Belgian conceptual artist Wim Delvoye.


Best known for his "Cloaca," a "useless machine" designed to waste food by daily transforming it into synthetic excrement (which was then sold, of course), Delvoye has gained notoriety over his longstanding practice of tattooing pigs. Said to admire pig skin because of its resemblance to human skin (which he also tattoos, on the condition that he receives possession of the tattooed skin upon the tattooed person's death), Delvoye  describes the tattooed pigs as "living canvas." "I show the world works of art that are so alive they have to be vaccinated," he's stated. In order to avoid animal protection laws he moved his "Art Farm" to China in 2004, where his practice continues. Asked about the charges of animal cruelty levied against his work, Delvoye has responded in interviews that the pigs are treated well - they're even fed ice cream - and probably prefer living long lives with tattoos to getting slaughtered, chopped up, and eaten. 


The year in which the world was supposed to end, 2012 turned out to be a big year for employing animals as an art medium - objects, as opposed to subjects, of artworks. In addition to Miru Kim's Beuys-inspired "I Like Pigs and Pigs Like Me" (in which the naked artist spent 104 hours cavorting with pigs in a gallery at the international art fair Art Basel), and conceptual artist Darren Bader's "Images," which used cats as sculptures, and Belgian artist Jan Fabre's cat throwing controversy, 2012 included Damien Hirst's "In and Out of Love" at the Tate Modern in London, which incorporated, and famously resulted in the deaths of, over 9,000 butterflies. 


Hirst, who is one of the most commercially successful artists of all time, Banksy, and Delvoye, are not the only internationally recognized "art stars" using live animals as material. In 2014, celebrity artist Cai Guo-Qiang triggered outrage by gluing iPads to the shells of three live African sulcata tortoises in his "Moving Ghost Town" at the Aspen Art Museum. And, a year later, in 2015, French conceptual artist Pierre Huyghe exhibited artworks incorporating living animals at both the Museum of Modern Art and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (His work on the roof of the Met incorporated an aquarium housing a lamprey, among other creatures; while, 30 blocks away, his 2012 sculpture "Untilled," a reclining nude whose head is made from a buzzing beehive, was exhibited in the MOMA sculpture garden. But these were hardly the first artworks Huyghe has made out of living animals.)


While such establishment art critics as Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz (chief art critics for the New York Times and New York Magazine, respectively) would probably express some degree of disapproval over Kim Jones' "Rat Piece," or Delvoyes' tattooed pigs, they nevertheless do not seem to object to treating animals as objects - i.e., to a practice normalizing domination and exploitation. Indeed, Saltz (whose peculiar understanding of feminism involves his "old belief" - as he puts it in his encomium to Hillary Clinton - that misogyny is "hard wired into us, primitive, primal, deep," rather than historically and culturally produced, as more critical critics recognize) positively raved about the 2015 restaging of Kounellis' 1969 installation "Horses." And it should not come as a surprise, I suppose, that a person whose social media portraits depict him in the embrace of Bill Clinton should enjoy the feeling of walking amidst a dozen powerful, yet disabled, animals. That is, it is entirely consistent that someone who appears to delight in power would enjoy the experience of participating in a grand bondage scene. And though they may be provided with better care than the creatures unfortunate enough to be held captive at SeaWorld (each horse was attended by, as Saltz put it, "three loving grooms"), the horses are nevertheless still tied to, and facing, a wall for eight hours a day, on display for the amusement of the public. 


Defenders of works such as "Horses," or the recent re-staging of superstar artist Maurizio Cattelan's 1994 installation "Enter at Your Own Risk...Thank You" (which features a donkey, as a type of self portrait, standing about in a manger-like space beneath a chandelier for much of the day at the Frieze art fair), who point out that the captive animals are well fed and treated humanely only illustrate the prevalence of the inability to recognize the state of capture, and being treated as an object, as constituting a harm in itself. Yet, in a social world in which people are not only commodified (i.e., objectified) and confined throughout the ever-lengthening workday, all the while pressured to spend their so-called free time deforming their experiences into further commodities (for the benefit of corporations like Facebook), it is hardly surprising that many see the treatment of an animal as an (art) object as completely normal. Relatedly, it hardly seems coincidental that Sir Gabriel (the name of the donkey at Frieze), as well as Tai (the elephant) also appear in mainstream movies and music videos alongside such figures as Britney Spears. All of which is to say, the aesthetic that these artworks seem to be realizing is not an actual aesthetic at all, but an anesthetic. As opposed to an actual aesthetic (which involves critique), anesthetic, like entertainment, functions to numb people, facilitating the smooth operation of the hegemonic order. 


Duke Riley's "Fly by Night," which will be performed each weekend at the Brooklyn Navy Yard until June 12, illustrates this anesthetic aesthetic well. Described by Roberta Smith in her New York Times review as a "performance by 2,000 pigeons," she also compares the "performers" to "sailors on deck" of a ship. Perhaps she should have added that, as has been the case historically in naval projects, these sailors have been conscripted. They did not join this performance willingly. They only participate at all, and take flight, because people, waving large sticks at them, force them to fly about, lights attached to their ankles, for the crowd's amusement. Smith described it as "a revelation." And though it may have been visually striking (retinal art, as Duchamp might dismissively put it), as opposed to an anesthetic, a critical aesthetic requires actual criticism - which involves, at the very least,  attentiveness to the pervasive, stultifying influence of ideology. 

Establishment critics like Saltz and Smith, among others, and artists like Riley, et al, not to mention the gallerists, curators, and institutions comprising the art world may imagine that they are practicing a critical aesthetic by using living animals as objects, as material. If they examined the situation a bit more deeply, however, they might recognize that this use of animals simply reflects, and reproduces, the hegemonic 'anesthetic' integral to this society's greatest harms. 



Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and teacher. He lives in New York City.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Free Stuff = Free Society

originally published on CounterPunch

Waiting in line to get into the Bernie Sanders rally in Brooklyn the other day, an interesting conversation about the relationship between colleges and democracy caught my ear.

Corey, who was more than a little skeptical about the economic feasibility of Bernie Sanders’ platform, was saying that it didn’t make sense for a society to provide free college. Free college, he maintained, would benefit the youth at the expense of everyone else.

That’s just not true at all, his interlocutor, Ramona, responded. It makes perfect sense. Not only is an educated society good for its own sake, the thing that doesn’t make sense (unless you’re one of the few people making money off of it) is an educational system that results in debt peonage. Relieving debt is good not just for students, but for society in general.

Corey replied by suggesting that, among other problems, free college would lead to surges in enrollment. After glancing at his smart phone, and appearing to tap out a text message, he asked whether or not Ramona thought, as he did, that if everyone had free access to college no one would work and the entire economy would collapse.

On the contrary, she rejoined. Just think about all the problems such an arrangement would actually solve. Colleges have medical clinics that provide health care for students, right (not to mention some of the most sophisticated hospitals in the country)? If everyone were a student, and all students had access to this health care, this could help to correct our health care crisis. Also, universal enrollment in colleges could help fix society’s housing crisis – because everyone in a free college could theoretically live in free housing. All these buildings around here, she said, pointing to the rows of four and five floor walk-ups, this whole part of town could be part of a new campus. You could just nationalize it all, or inter-nationalize it all, and this could all be free housing. All of these empty shops and spaces could be classrooms and workshops.

Oh come on, said Corey. Who would work in these medical clinics?

Who? repeated Ramona. Why, the people that live here. The students – and the professors and researchers – who live in the community would work in and maintain these things. Why not? Students at the medical schools could run the clinics as part of their clinical education. If there’s some problem with a pipe or the electrical stuff that the people in some building didn’t know how to fix, they could just ask students in the engineering department, or the architecture department, or some other relevant department. The Con Ed plant across the river, she said, pointing to the smoke stacks in the distance, that could be run by the colleges, too. There are a lot of ways to go about developing a community college economy. And because no one would have to pay rent or tuition or anything, people wouldn’t be compelled to get shit jobs producing garbage. You’d just have to do a couple hours a month helping with the transportation or sanitation systems or something, like a co-op. This would all be very good for the general ecosystem, too.

I don’t know, said Corey, taking a sip from his paper coffee cup. You can’t have a whole economic system based around colleges. What about food? Who would grow it? What about national security?

Are you serious? Colleges grow food all over the place! Agriculture departments grow food. This is even done in elementary schools. It wouldn’t be difficult at all for each college to grow its own food – in fields, greenhouses, rooftops, wherever – these streets. You could even grow food on the East River by creating floating gardens that would be watered from the bottom up by evaporating river water. I was just reading about this community college in Greenfield, Massachusetts that has this program creating food security for the entire community. There’s your national security (or maybe we should call it human security). The various campuses, you know, could trade whatever surpluses they have among one another, so you’d have more variety. The various film schools could have festivals and competitions showing their best stuff. You could have a whole international – or post-national – network of colleges around the world. I’m not saying it would be simple; but it would be a more fair, and healthy, and fun way of doing things, in my humble political opinion.

Actually, Ramona continued, there’s no reason that the college (the public, community college, within a global network of colleges, or something like that) shouldn’t be the basic organizational form of a society that’s actually democratic. Even the word college, you know, is derived from the Latin collegium, which means society, or community. So, you see, so-called free college isn’t about free stuff; ultimately, it’s about a free society, a self-governing society. Isn’t that what this is all about?

Corey took another sip from his cup, then said: I can’t tell whether or not you’re joking.

Because the line started moving, I wasn’t able to hear Ramona’s reply.


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sowing the World with Salt

originally published on CounterPunch


While the historicity of the practice of sowing a vanquished enemy’s fields with salt is the subject of considerable dispute, there is no disputing the fact that it exists as a symbol. Beyond the canonical examples (such as the biblical account of the Israelite judge Abimelech sowing the mutinous city of Shechem with salt in the second millennium BC, or the more well-known story of the Roman general Scipio Africanus’ sowing conquered Carthage with salt in the second century BC), spreading salt over the fields of a defeated adversary has come to signify thorough, undisputed conquest. 


As such, one may be forgiven for wondering why the new Rome, with its Senates and its Capitols, and its world-spanning empire, has not sought to emulate the old Rome by pursuing just such a practice. Aside from the various territorial and economic problems this consideration raises, however, the fact of the matter is that the present political-economic order is already considerably far along in sowing the fields of the world with salt. In addition to the salinization of the world’s fields resulting from rising oceans attendant climate change, much of the world’s land is being salinized by industrial fertilizers and other forms of pollution, not to mention the far more quotidian practice of irrigation farming.


The historical irony, of course, is that these ecological injuries are not the contemporary political-economic order (global capitalism)’s specific aim. They are the consequence of a number of short-sighted, market-based, technology-oriented factors. Nor do they symbolize the end of a war. Unlike in ancient times, by further diminishing access to water, limiting crop yields, and threatening biodiversity, among other harms, sowing the world with salt has little to do with ending wars. Instead, it creates them.


Monday, September 14, 2015

Forget Security

Originally published on CounterPunch


From national security to social security, and from economic security to water security and food security, the early 21st century concern with security reflects modes of interacting with the world that create and recreate the very harms that the various forms of security seek to correct. The demands of “economic security,” for instance (which, in typically uncritical fashion, excludes basic considerations from its concept), leads to practices such as fracking and rainforest clearance, not to mention more mundane, widespread contaminants, which in turn imperil “water security,” among others.


To some degree, the etymology of the word security illuminates why this is the case. Derived from the Latin se cura, which means free from care, being secure in many respects means being carefree. However, one must not overlook the fact that being carefree does not simply mean being free from worry. It also drifts into another meaning – that one doesn’t have to think about troubling things at all. That is, being carefree slides into being careless. These meanings are inextricable.\


In addition to its more direct violence, managing the world and society in accordance with the interests of security not only discourages people in general from thinking too much about the issues we collectively face (allowing deeply ideological, racist structures to flourish). In organizing society around the principle of security (of carefreeness and carelessness) we neglect a duty of care to the world and to one another that reproduces the toxic, hostile world we all inhabit.


Rather than accepting the validity of this ideology of security (inseparable historically from ecocidal and genocidal levels of carelessness) we ought to cultivate a politics of attentiveness and carefulness. And maybe, by caring in concrete practice (as opposed to caring in mere theory), we can overcome the problems that we’re told we can correct by means of security.



Elliot Sperber is a writer, lawyer, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City, and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com

Friday, December 12, 2014

Property Is Racist

Originally published on CounterPunch


While most cops - as so many contend in the USA these days - may not be racists (let's say, for the sake of argument, that they aren't), it is nevertheless still the case that the police, as an institution, is racist through and through.

This is because, among other things, as an institution, the police is an appendage of the larger institution of property. The police serves property. And property - in the US at the very least - is inextricable from racist dispossessions of wealth. Property is racist.

Indeed, it is no coincidence that the term private (found in the designation private property) derives from the verb 'to deprive.' And these deprivations, from the late eighteenth century on, and the creation of both personal property (slaves, for instance) and real property (land) were justified and enabled by racist ideologies.


This relationship - between race, property and police - appears in the very creation of the institution of the police department. In the US, as Kristian Williams and others have noted, the first police departments were specifically instituted to hunt runaway slaves - that is, to retrieve and secure runaway chattels, also known as personal property, or personalty. And slaves' status as property was determined by the idea of race. 

Related to personalty is the concept of realty. Realty, or real property, refers to fixed property - land. And, just as it is with the case of slavery, the modern anointment of the world as so many pieces of property (dominated by owners and secured by contracts, the courts, police, etc.) is inextricable from the racist ideologies and practices fundamental to the European and US conquest of the planet. Whether public property or private property, real property (like a particular lot of land) or personal property (like the cotton extracted from it), property is simultaneously the manifestation of wealth and power (political and economic), and the objective, concrete manifestation of historical racism. This is not to say that property is exclusively racist. However, in the US property is thoroughly imbued with and inseparable from racism. 

Just look at where real property (to say nothing of personal property, or wealth in general) comes from. In the US virtually all real property was taken, by force and in violation of legally binding treaties, from Native Americans. And more often than not the rationale for forcefully taking these lands derived from racist narratives. Depicting Native Americans as essentially nomadic (in stark contrast to the evidence of the practices of the Cherokee Nation, for example, or to the presence of the ruins of the city of Cahokia - which, when discovered in the early 1800s by European-Americans, near present day St. Louis, was larger than the contemporaneous city of Washington D.C.), the racist narrative of an essential nature was necessary to the ethnic cleansing of North America and the concomitant transformation of the land into so much property.


At the same time, the development of wealth and property in the US was inextricable from a slave economy underpinned by racist ideologies and practices. Even after the Civil War, the exception to the 13th Amendment - which allows slavery in the case of punishment - enabled the continuation of systemic slave labor to flourish. More often than not, this practice was deeply racialized. In addition to significantly contributing to the industrialization of the South, this racist prison labor system continues to operate, controlling overwhelmingly black and brown 'surplus populations' and generally maintaining property values throughout the country as well. This fundamental relationship between race and property is not by any means limited to the 19th century, however, or to the prison-industrial complex that Michelle Alexander persuasively refers to as "the new Jim Crow."


In the 20th century racist practices such as blockbusting, redlining, and urban renewal destroyed neighborhoods and enriched others across the US. These policies and practices ensured that some people (like pundit Bill O'Reilly's family, who lived in racially restricted Levittown, New York) would benefit economically and politically from owning property, and others (such as people of color living in areas that were being deformed into ghettos by these same policies) would not. The brutal effects of these policies continue to reverberate throughout the US today in the form of poverty, inequality, incarceration, and police violence (the patent expression of the latent relations of domination and subordination). The deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, among so many others, are the entirely foreseeable outcome of these relations. 


In spite of the prevalence of its brutality, though, in the end the institution of the police is but an extension of the more deeply rooted institution of property - which, in turn, is the manifestation of wealth and economic power (which, in a capitalist society, translates to political power as well).


In light of this, in confronting racism it is insufficient (though nevertheless still crucial) to focus our efforts on the brutality of the police. The police is but the tip of the racist iceberg - or, if you prefer, the toxic icing on the racist cake. As the icing, it primarily conforms to, and reflects, the underlying contours of the cake.

Meaningfully dismantling racism, then, not to mention inequality and poverty, requires dismantling not the police so much as it requires dismantling property relations. This, in turn, requires dismantling property as such - not the concrete objects that are presently regarded as property so much as the very concept of property - and what this implies, the right to dominate in the first place.



Elliot Sperber is a writer, lawyer, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City, and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Do Not Save the World, Please

originally published on CounterPunch


Climate change is a scientific fact. The planet is warming, and this warming is anthropogenic - that is, it is caused by people. The evidence for this is overwhelming. And as temperatures and sea levels continue to rise, and as glaciers and ice caps continue to melt, we all bear witness to ever new hurricanes, floods, fires, and other disasters. We even have new terms to describe these - e.g., extreme weather events. Famine, disease, war, water insecurity, and other insecurities proliferate. In confronting these exigencies, people’s tendency to refer to the need to save the world is entirely understandable. In spite of this, however, the idea of saving the world is deeply problematic.


Consistent with the religious, colonial, and imperialistic associations wrapped up in the notion of saving (and salvation - from which the liberal ideas of progress, progressivism, and development derive), this notion contains a fundamentally conservative implication. For, rather than advancing justice or fairness in a critical, meaningful sense, "saving" involves maintaining, conserving, and preserving what already exists. Of course, in employing this expression people do not mean to suggest that they wish to preserve the things that threaten them. Nor do they mean to say that the physical world as such should be saved. Unless we're discussing large-scale nuclear war, the physical world's existence is not in question. Even if it's soon shrouded in clouds of ammonia, and supports little more than jellyfish, the physical world will persist. No, when people speak of saving the world they are referring to saving a particular type of world. But what type? The type that led to the present ecological crisis? Even if those who speak of saving the world are referring to saving the seed of the future world developing in this one, doesn't saving the world imply destroying other types of worlds as well? No, this rhetoric of saving the world is confused at best. To paraphrase Marx's Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, the point is not to save the world. "The point is to change it."


As such, we should ask ourselves what the persistence of this salvific language suggests. While one may be inclined to think that this is some sort of superficial quasi-problem, the prevalence of the term in, among other places, promotions for the People's Climate March (which entreat people to "save the world," and to "save everything we love," along with descriptions of itself as "a movement that can save the world") may reflect an orientation less concerned with transforming the world in keeping with the interests of actual justice than it is with organizing society in a manner that preserves certain privileged ways of life (along with privilege's converse, exploitation and discrimination). At the very least, the use of this type of language reflects a degree of difficulty distinguishing salvation from actual justice and transformation. How else does one explain the fact that, in the film Disruption (which, according to the People's Climate March website, "gives a behind-the-scenes look at a part of the effort to organize the People's Climate March"), the organizer Keya Chatterjee herself proclaims (some 40 minutes in) that "we have to get off of fossil fuels to protect our way of life"? This assertion leads to as much confusion as it reveals. Just which way of life is Chatterjee referring to? Isn't our way of life the problem that we're supposed to be combating? Or, did she mean something else? Beyond the fact that the march is supported by the Climate Group, whose members include, among others, BP, Goldman Sachs, and Duke Energy, an examination of the implications of the film's title is revealing. 


In what appears to be an instance of ideological affinity, as opposed to mere coincidence, the short film Disruption shares its name with a theory from the world of business. As dubious as it is prevalent (especially in tech circles), the theory known as technological disruption, innovative disruption, and simply disruption attempts to explain why businesses succeed and fail. Roundly criticized for flaws including circular reasoning and selective examinations of history, the New York Times defines disruption as that which occurs when "fledgling companies use new technology to offer... alternatives to products sold by established players." Like practitioners of technological disruption, the movie Disruption advances a similar logic.  


Referring repeatedly to "climate disruption," the film's featured speakers, including Chatterjee, Van Jones, the ostensibly anti-capitalist Naomi Klein, Chris Hayes and Bill McKibben, consistently argue that the fossil fuel industry must not only be dismantled; they stress that doing so will correct the problems we collectively confront. Presenting climate change as the most significant problem facing humanity (as opposed to recognizing climate change and ecocide as outgrowths of a more deeply rooted exploitative and coercive political-economic system and way of life), the film again and again attributes responsibility for the present crisis to the fossil fuel industry. To the neglect of all other ecocidal activities (such as the practices of the meat industry, which according to some reports account for 51% of greenhouse gases), the film argues solely for the elimination of the fossil fuel industry and its replacement by a green energy industry. Rather than arguing for the replacement of the intrinsically exploitative commodity economy, which harms far more than the environment, green technology is presented as the answer. The purpose of production within a capitalist system - metastatic growth and profit - is not questioned at all. Instead of inquiring as to why our economic system requires so many jobs, many of which cause far more harm than good, in the first place, Van Jones simply apprises us that "many jobs will be available for people building wind turbines."

Coupled with its unambiguous interest in investing in green technologies, Disruption's single-minded focus on the fossil fuel industry may lead people to suspect that the commitment to environmentalism advanced by the film (and, by extension, that of the People's Climate March) involves pursuing a political-economic strategy in line with the logic of technological disruption described above. In other words, those behind the film appear to be attempting to "disrupt" the fossil fuel industry in order to profit off of "green tech" (such is the logic of disruption, theory and film). Actually, on their website, The Climate Group says this more or less explicitly. Unlike Flood Wall Street, set for Monday, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, The Climate Group, and other "disrupters" don't seem interested in disrupting daily life very much at all. Not only is the New York march being held on a Sunday, it is designed to end up on marginal 11th Avenue. Advertisements even playfully encourage marchers to grab brunch before making history. Whether their brunch server is invited to "change history" with the hipsters and bankers is difficult to discern. 

All of which is to say, though an economic engine fueled by a clean, green energy source may very well significantly slow down climate change, absent deep structural, systematic transformations, that engine will merely fuel the exploitative political-economic system presently in place – a clean, green exploitative machine is still an exploitative machine. And a clean, green capitalism is not at all incongruent with high rates of occupational disease, sweatshop labor, sleep deprivation, obesity, stress, food insecurity, housing insecurity, homelessness, mass indebtedness, mass incarceration, and the other systemic problems that arise from a political-economic system that prioritizes exchange-value over use-value. As clean and green as they may become, prisons will still be prisons. And a clean, green military machine would still be a wild misuse of our collective potential.

A particularly problematic aspect of Disruption's narrow treatment of climate change – and the narrow focus of its proposed solution – is the fact that no mention is made of why this economy needs to use such a tremendous amount of energy in the first place. Why, for instance, are people compelled to rush around all the time? Why is it the case that, though US worker productivity has only increased over the past several decades, wages for most, and most people's quality of life, only decreased? 


The answer, of course, is that this economy produces goods and services (not to mention scarcity itself) in order to make a profit – the satisfaction of human needs is secondary. In the words of Adam Smith – and other economists, such as Marx – this political economic system produces goods and services for their exchange-value, not for their use-value. The point is to make money, and then to invest this to make more – an orientation that generates a profound conflict of interest.  


Food production for profit provides a strong example of this conflict. Instead of leading to the satisfaction of hunger, the production of food for exchange-value, as opposed to use-value, winds up creating food insecurity. The reason for this is straightforward enough. As the amount of food produced increases (as its supply rises), the exchange-value drops. Within such a system, farmers are punished, not rewarded, for satisfying needs and providing food. What results is a food production system in which regularly destroying food and creating scarcity to keep up prices is rewarded. Beyond destroying food directly, various subsidies are provided to prevent farmers from growing too much and upsetting the market. Nourishment is hardly a consideration. In such an upside down system, eliminating hunger would destroy the businessperson/farmer, starvation be damned. 

This commercialistic logic - in which exchange trumps use, and luxury is valued more highly than necessity - is also clearly illustrated by recent occurrences in the housing market in New York City. As a particular residence for elderly people in Brooklyn saw properties in its neighborhood rise in exchange-value, the landlord (who's primarily a businessperson, after all, motivated by profit) realized that s/he could make a great deal more money by evicting the elderly residents and converting the property into luxury condominiums. Consequently, the elderly tenants were evicted. While this generated considerable public outcry, and was described in the New York Times as a particularly egregious instance of immorality, it is nothing less than the logic of the market displaying itself. Luxury housing - which by definition is not necessary, and often isn't even used except as an investment - takes precedence in a commodity economy over necessary housing. Among other things, this is because housing isn't produced for use, but for exchange. This is the principle that regulates our society, produces vast amounts of toxic waste and disease, and precludes the development of an actually just world. 


Unfortunately, discussions concerning global warming, climate justice, and the development of alternative fuels are primarily taking place in this general exchange-value-prioritizing context. If green energy (along with other conditions necessary for the well-being of all - such as housing, nutritious food, transportation and communication networks) is not decommodified, and produced for use rather than for exchange, it will only be lorded over by new landlords and masters, and provided to (or withheld from) consumers, rather than people, for profit, rather than as an end in itself. [See Detroit]


As such, instead of the coercive, exploitative, capitalist model that produces food, homes, transportation systems, energy systems, and other human needs for exchange, a critical, emancipatory politics would produce and distribute those conditions necessary for actually egalitarian, democratic social relations for their own sake. Like those political rights we hear so much about, these conditions would be inalienable – not for sale. Rather than creating more work, requiring more jobs (and more occupational disease and pollution, among other harms) the decommodification of society would eliminate the need for so much work, eliminating the need for so many jobs. Freed from being compelled to produce for exchange, according to the dictates of the market, the planet - and humanity as well - could begin to heal. In other words, rather than simply, and simplistically, saving the world that we presently inhabit, justice demands that we fundamentally transform it.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Beyond Reparations - Ferguson and Actual Justice

originally published on CounterPunch

Killed at noon, just down the road from the grave of the slave Dred Scott, Michael Brown has now joined a perennially growing group of dead men and women (a group that only recently added Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Renisha McBride, and others) killed by a combination of institutional racism and systemic poverty. Poverty and race, of course (like race and wealth), cannot be easily disentangled. Not only has the man-made construct of race been used to justify seizures of material resources (gold, timber, land, etc.) from various locales throughout the world, impoverishing these; it has also justified enslaving people, creating immense wealth from slave labor. That is, racial discrimination is not only intertwined with poverty; its obverse, racial privilege, is a key component of affluence. As such, rather than the existence of the two Americas we hear so much about (black and white, rich and poor) there is really mainly one: the parasitic embrace of its constituent parts.

This entanglement of race and poverty, and the relations of domination it implies, demonstrates that poverty should also be regarded as something beyond the absence of economic power. For poverty refers to a condition in which political power, in addition to economic power, is absent. In other words, poverty refers to a lack – or, more accurately, a deprivation – of political-economic power that amounts to something more than political-economic weakness; it amounts to a weakness that leaves people vulnerable to such a degree as to constitute an injury in its own right – a vulnerability which tends to go unseen, taken for granted, and not easily distinguished from the more quantitative harms characteristic of poverty, such as high rates of incarceration, and epidemic levels of preventable diseases.

It is no coincidence, then, that the term injury is not just etymologically related but conceptually related to the notion of justice. And justice, if it means anything at all, requires that this ongoing injury (of marginalization, exclusion, and abuse) be repaired. But how is a society to repair such an injury? What type of repairs, or reparations, must be accomplished to correct this entrenched injustice?

The concept of reparations, of course, requires some clarification. Just what is it that we mean when we refer to reparations? In certain respects this concept overlaps with the equitable notion of restitution – according to which, if justice is to be effectuated, a party injured or harmed by another must be made whole – repaired – by the injurer. As this applies to the African American community, there is no question that the African American community has been monumentally harmed by the political and economic institutions of the United States of America. From insurance companies (such as Aetna) who profited enormously from slavery, to industrial and agricultural companies, not to mention banks, finance, and real estate interests, tremendous fortunes were made – and continue to be enjoyed – from the abuse and exploitation of millions of people. The law has a name for this type of enrichment: unjust enrichment.

Based on the ancient Roman legal maxim nemo locupletari potest aliena iactura - that none should be enriched from an other’s loss – the doctrine of unjust enrichment holds that when one is enriched at an other’s expense, irrespective of the enriched party’s fault, a duty arises to rectify this by disbursing the unjustly acquired enrichment to those harmed in its acquisition. According to the doctrine of unjust enrichment, then, the African American community ought to be reimbursed somehow for the collective injustice it has suffered. Moreover, those who profited from this suffering (and continue to enjoy the wealth and privilege derived from such suffering – a privilege that is nothing short of the obverse of discrimination) should be dispossessed of this unjustly attained advantage.

While the African American community may be among the most wronged people in the history of the US, however, we must not neglect to note that it does not occupy this category singly. Just as Ferguson is a suburb of St. Louis, the so-called Gateway to the West, this gateway opened on to nothing short of the conquest of the continent – and its appropriation, contrary to legally binding treaties, from millions of native people. As such, according to the doctrine of unjust enrichment, the fortunes derived from exploiting the continent ought to also somehow be removed from those unjustly enriched by this, and returned to those unjustly deprived.

In spite of the fact that African Americans and indigenous people have suffered inordinately, it deserves to be mentioned that women and immigrants from across the world – Ireland, Eastern, Central, and Southern Europe, China, Vietnam, and the rest of Asia, as well as from Latin America, among other places – have suffered generations of exploitation as well. In fields, in the depths of coal mines, and in countless sweatshops and factories, countless people have been compelled – at the expense of limbs, lives, and well-being – to produce tremendous wealth and power for a small class of people. Consequently, when discussing the issue of reparations and social justice, we must address the fact that – according to the doctrine of unjust enrichment, at least – most people in this society – the urban poor, the rural poor, the working class, and even the middle class – deserve some form of reparation. How, however, does one begin to repair this widespread impoverishment?

Because money derives its value in part from scarcity, exploitation, and debt – and, so, requires poverty and exploitation to function – money can only superficially correct the basic problem of poverty/social injustice. Instead of thinking about reparations as the distribution or redistribution of money, or of other commodities (the value of which is restricted to its exchange-value – i.e., money), then, we should recognize that actual justice, and actual peace, requires social relations that are not regulated by the drive for profit (i.e., peace requires social relations that are non-exploitative). As such, a step toward an actually just society can be accomplished not by distributing commodities but, rather, by decommodifying that which is necessary for an actually democratic society.

Instead of remaining within the sphere of commerce, and subject to its whims, that which is necessary for human flourishing should not be available conditionally, in exchange for something else. Housing, nutritious food, water (as the situation in Detroit is making so clear), not to mention health care, education, communications, transportation, and other resources necessary for the realization of an actually just, actually democratic society should not only be inalienable (not for sale), an actually just society’s priority would be to supply these conditions directly. Producing and maintaining housing, food, livable cities, healthy ecosystems, and other conditions, would be a just society’s job – as well as its reward.
  
Beyond the obvious calls for the demilitarization of the police, and of the removal of money from politics – and even beyond the more intrepid calls for the abolition of the United States’ metastasizing prison system – actual justice and actual peace (the absence of which has been amply illustrated by the unrest in Ferguson) requires not just redistributing political-economic power; actual justice and actual peace requires neutralizing coercive political-economic social relations. Beyond the superficial justice involved in hauling off cops to prison, by de-commodifying and universally supplying those conditions that are an actually democratic society’s precondition we can move concretely toward social conditions of actual justice, and actual peace.




Elliot Sperber is a writer, lawyer, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City, and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com