CFP: Communism and Catastrophe

Royal Geographical Society annual conference, Exeter 2015
Conference theme: Politics of the Anthropocene

Across the world, crises are multiplying in the monetary, ecological, and urban spheres. There has been a palpable renewal in political fervor and youthful participation. Yet responses from the left have lacked the clarity and sense of purpose which Marxism-Leninism and solidarity used to command. On the theoretical front, however, largely thanks to the work of Alain Badiou, Antonio Negri, and Slavoj Zizek, there has been a return to theorizing the difficult historical trajectory of communism. The multiple crises in fact seem to converge on an absolute necessity of continuing to raise the question of communism: if the analysis shows capital and capitalism are at the basis of the multiple crises, it has historically been communism which provides the most robust (“scientific”, as used to be said) revolutionary pathway forward. All other alternatives have been reabsorbed into the capitalist maelstrom, including anti-authoritarian experimentations and the self-proclaimed communism that actually existed in the twentieth century. There can be no melancholy in realizing this reabsorption. Understanding the logic of past failures, however disastrous, only removes the clutter in rethinking our premises. This session will hypothesize that it is crisis, disaster and catastrophe that necessitate putting the concept and organisation of a twenty-first century communism at the heart of left theoretical practice.

Nowhere else is catastrophe more evident than the convergence of crises called the Anthropocene. There is the outline of a veritable class struggle emerging in geology, surely the biggest surprise ever from an epistemological perspective. On the left, however weak it still is, there is the increasingly committed effort to exposing what is responsible for catastrophe, which is becoming visible especially in the Global South: the growth imperative, business-as-usual, or what should be called capitalism. On the right, there is the increasingly desperate belief that technology and markets will still be able to avert catastrophe and create “sustainability”. The more the right remains hegemonic, the worse our planetary predicament, and the more the case for dismantling capitalism will be clarified. If there ever was a set of ripe conditions for communism, the Anthropocene is it.

Theorists of communism are justified in being cynical about the importance of the physical sciences, especially biology, for theorizing politics. In the wake of complexity theory and a proliferation of spiritualities, the Anthropocene is spawning new versions of old vitalism, humanism, and eclecticism. But neglecting the immense theoretical problems the Anthropocene creates is to the detriment of the debates taking place. Can the maligned idealistic nature/history dichotomies which most of the Marxist tradition has relied on, from Plato via Hegel to Saussure, still offer solid ontological ground for thinking what is to be done in the twenty-first century? Is the Anthropocene not of infinitely more universality than any other catastrophe that has accompanied ethical and political thinking, like Hiroshima, Auschwitz, 9/11, the fall of the Roman Empire, colonial genocide, or Nakba, precisely because of its unfathomable time scales, its imperative to think for all humans henceforth? Or is, on the contrary, such a capitulation to the alarmist rhetoric of scientists and the United Nations already a sign of weakness, of cooptation? This panel will seek to find out.

Send questions and ideas to Arun Saldanha, saldanha@umn.edu.

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