Friday, August 29, 2014

A Cure for Climate Change

originally published on CounterPunch

As Easter Sunday melds into Easter Monday, and as technophiles and other overly zealous techno-fetishists prattle on about their market-based (that is, their faith-based) and tech-based fixes for climate change, a foolproof, low-tech and (dare I say) “shovel ready” solution is already at hand: the time-honored institution of the vacation. Recognized as vital at least since biblical times (when the sabbath – a word derived from the verb ‘to rest’ – was introduced) the vacation not only enables people and other animals to rejuvenate, the planet itself benefits from being left alone.

To be sure, people the world over have for millennia recognized that leaving fields fallow (or at least rotating crops) allows fields to recover their vitality. And who can deny the fact that limiting the introduction of pollutants to the ground helps the earth to repair itself? The soil, people, and other animals, though, are not the only things that benefit from rest; the seas, also, heal when left alone. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, North Sea fisheries were over-fished to such an extent that, by the 1930s, they were all but depleted. The vacation imposed by World War II, however (which virtually shut down the industry for the war’s duration), allowed fish populations to recover. On the brink of deforming into a worldwide dead zone today, a global moratorium on – and mandatory vacation from – industrial fishing (not to mention a vacation from the introduction of various toxic pollutants into the seas) could not only lead to the recovery of the world’s oceans, because the oceans are responsible for converting most of the world’s CO2 into oxygen, such a policy could significantly mitigate climate change as well.

In addition to the seas and the soil and the people of the world, the planet’s skies would also greatly benefit from a meaningful vacation. As demonstrated by the cessation of air travel following the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland in 2010 (not to mention shut downs and slow downs from labor strikes, and the limitation of automobile traffic, among other things), vacations from our ecocidal economy lead to vastly improved air quality. In other words, beyond improving the soil, the air, the seas, and people’s health and quality of life, vacations of various stripes and types alleviate climate change in general.

And while such improvements (to health, for instance) alone should lead reasonable people to adopt something akin to a secular sabbath (two or three mandatory holidays per week, perhaps), when we factor in what we know about climate change, and the harms we collectively face, the adoption of such a policy should amount to a socio-economic priority for all but the most disturbed sadists and masochists among us – a priority, by the way, with very few downsides. Indeed, while in earlier times vacations may have compromised people’s health to some degree (since vacations could impede the production of food, among other necessities), vacations pose no such problems presently. Modern agricultural practices enable the production of easily enough food to feed the world – the demands of profit, more than anything else, are what determine that millions of people should be deprived of sufficient nutrition.

With the capitalist economic system’s voracious requirements in mind, though, it takes little to recognize that ten, or so, extra vacations per month will result in both 1) less income, and added harms, for workers and 2) less profit for owners. Like the climate change problem, however, this apparent problem has a simple, low tech solution: the decommodification of housing, food, electricity, transportation, and other “necessities” will correct problem 1). As for problem 2) – well, the owners will just have to take a “haircut.” With economic inequality at historic highs, there’s little question that they can afford it.

And though we should not overlook the fact that climate change is merely part of a larger problem, stemming from a culture of domination and alienation (from which capitalism itself is but an outgrowth), and though we should note that, within such a context, a couple of vacations a week can only amount to a short term fix, a couple of mandatory vacations a week, and the decommodification of necessities, may nevertheless not be a terrible place to begin.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Cosmopolitanism contra Empire

Originally published on CounterPunch 

Though Tiberius died, and the ancient Romans have all faded away, the empire has not. As a political form the empire not only remains, it is still very much alive. Just look outside at the various senates, and capitol buildings dotting the landscape. Though Rome may have left more remnants of its reign, however, Alexander the Great's empire may provide a better example - not only of the empire as such, but of that which opposes and resists it.

Beyond Hellenizing much of the world (to some degree laying the groundwork for subsequent empires), Alexander of Macedon served as well as a symbol of imperialist aspiration. From Pompey the Great, who actively emulated Alexander's hairstyle and dress, to Julius Caesar and Napoleon, the figure of Alexander exemplified (and in many respects continues to exemplify) not only an unparalleled model of martial excellence (as well as a warning of the hazards of decadence and violence); Alexander symbolized the particularly imperialistic characteristics of ambition, drive, and sovereign power - the supreme power to command - not to mention heteronomy.

If we are willing to accept the proposition that Alexander is symbolic of empire (of domination and heteronomy), however, it ought to be added that the Cynic philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope, may be regarded as the antithesis of Alexander (and, by extension, as the antithesis of empire, heteronomy, and domination as well). For while Alexander may be regarded as a singular manifestation of coercive power - as military force - Diogenes, aside from his own self, commanded nothing. Owning nothing and according to legend living in an upturned tub, as opposed to the grandeur of Alexander, Diogenes championed the simple life. Moreover, contrary to the coercive, dominating power of Alexander, Diogenes may be said to manifest a non-coercive, emancipatory power - the power to control oneself. Autonomous as opposed to exposed to heteronomy, Diogenes was able to exert influence through reasoning, without dominating or harming (although he did not entirely abstain from harassing) others.

According to various sources, including the historian Plutarch, Alexander and Diogenes even met. While Alexander was still a prince he visited Corinth and sought the company of the famous philosopher. When Alexander told the latter that he would grant the philosopher anything he'd like, in a demonstration of audacity the Cynic famously replied that he would like Alexander to move, as the prince was blocking his sun. As the contemporary philosopher Peter Sloterdijk remarks in his Critique of Cynical Reason, this encounter demonstrates, among other things, the "sovereign spirit" of the philosopher. Inhabiting not a truer world, but a truer life, the critical thinker is (to some degree) free from intimidation and coercion. Beyond the sovereign power of Alexander, which requires subjects to dominate and lord over, Diogenes was strikingly autonomous.

The opposition between Alexander and Diogenes, heteronomy and autonomy, becomes even more pronounced when one considers Diogenes' legendary response to a question concerning his citizenship. Asked from where he came, Diogenes reputedly replied: I am a cosmopolite - a citizen of the cosmos. In addition to putatively coining the term cosmopolitan, Diogenes to some degree defines the notion of the cosmopolitan - as that which, among other qualities, stands opposed to the heteronomous logic of empire, not to mention the nation-state. For what, after all, is the nation-state, in the end, but the manifestation of the imperial logic on a less extensive scale? Both operate according to the same principle - sovereignty over a territory and over a population - Alexander's coercive power, as opposed to the non-coercive power of Diogenes. Indeed, whereas the imperialist and/or nationalist adheres to an ultimately anti-egalitarian ideology rooted in force/coercion, the cosmopolitan may be said to eschew national or imperial myths and justifications of power in favor of a skeptical, flexible, critical thought - one that embraces difference, yet recognizes the invariable, universal human qualities and vulnerabilities (e.g., our common need for water, among other vital resources) that supersede national, ethnic differences. Because the cosmopolitan is said to be a "citizen" or member of the cosmos, or universe, it is entirely consistent that the cosmopolitan should not only recognize but prioritize the universal among all creatures.

Insofar as it relates to cosmopolitanism, it is worth noting that, like other diasporic communities (which have been, usually violently, dispersed across the world), the Jewish people, historically at least, have been regarded as particularly cosmopolitan. To some degree this characterization (as it generalizes an entire community) is a stereotype. However, because marginalized communities exist in relation to, and in contrast with, a mainstream, hegemonic culture, greater opportunities often do arise for a relativistic, cosmopolitan outlook to develop among marginalized communities. We see this consistently, with all sorts of marginalized, excluded communities. And it is worth consideration that cosmopolitan Jews (like Spinoza, and more recently Einstein, Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler, among others) tend to reject nationalistic politics. The ongoing emigration of the more egalitarian-minded Jews from Israel only affirms this. The cosmopolitan, anti-imperialistic, anti-nationalistic Jew is as opposed to the logic of empire and heteronomy as the nationalistic Jew (the Zionist - who is just as often also an imperialist) is opposed to a meaningful cosmopolitanism - a cosmopolitanism, and supra-nationalism, that, in the end, is the way toward a meaningful peace. For, rather than the violence of force or command (of sovereignty), the cosmopolitan position may be said to reflect Emmanuel Levinas' notion of care and responsibility toward the Other - a responsibility that, as he put it, "is an act of anarchic right that exists as outside the state."

In light of the above, the solution to the unconscionable violence in Gaza and beyond can neither be a one-state nor a two-state solution. Rather, actual peace requires a no state solution. For what is the state (what is this machine designed to exercise sovereignty over a territory and over a population) but an instrument of war? And because the state is an instrument designed to fight wars - both interstate wars (with other, rival states) and intra-state wars (class and civil wars), actual peace can never arrive in the guise of the state.

If an actual, supranational, cosmopolitan peace is to manifest in the world, not only must the state be dismantled; peace requires not just (as Kant expressed it in his essay Perpetual Peace) the total abolition of standing armies. Actual peace requires the provision of concrete, objective conditions as well (the material preconditions for concrete peace, such as nutritious food, water, housing, leisure, health care, a healthy environment, among other conditions necessary for human flourishing, not in exchange for money, but unconditionally - that is, these conditions must be as inalienable as the political rights they subtend). These conditions, however, are objectively precluded by the institutions of the contemporary state (e.g., militaries, banks, and real property, among others).

Accordingly, the state as a political form must be superseded. To propose that the State of Israel must be destroyed, then, should not be construed in the nationalistic sense that merely the State of Israel must be destroyed, or superseded. If actual, concrete peace is to manifest in the world, all states (not communities, or people, but the agglomeration of institutions - such as borders, and war machines - that comprise the state) must be destroyed. This should in no way be understood to mean that only states need to be destroyed, or that communities should be harmed, or that governments should be destroyed. Governments and states, it is important to note, are distinct entities. While the latter manifest sovereignty and heteronomy, and perpetuate monumental harms, the former carry the potential to manifest autonomy in the form of self-government - the democratic ideal par excellence.