Apocalyptic Optimism

It’s the end of the world as we know it*, but Gar Alperovitz and David Graeber feel fine.


Lately Robert Jensen has been importing religious terms into journalism. Borrowing from the seminal theologian Walter Brueggermann, Jensen defines three stances from which a journalist can report:

  • royal, relaying the vision of the Powers That Be
  • prophetic, calling the Powers That Be to repent and reform, as the prophets confronted the kings in the Old Testament
  • apocalyptic, announcing that the status quo is beyond reform and calling on the people to think in dramatically new ways

It’s easy for a royalist to be optimistic, because the system is basically sound and a few policy tweaks — a tax cut, a jobs bill, a new general with an improved strategy — will fix whatever temporary problems we might be having. A prophet may rail against current trends, but prophetic warnings rest on the optimistic subtext that we still have time to change our ways. If we just end the war or restore the Constitution or throw the crooks out, we’ll be back on track.

“I was planning to rebuild anyway.”

But the rarest kind of optimism is apocalyptic. The apocalyptic reporter sees that the cavalry won’t arrive in time or isn’t coming at all or will just make the destruction more complete. To be an apocalyptic optimist, you need to see the new seeds already sprouting in the shadow of the doomed sequoia.

In his new book What Then Must We Do?, Gar Alperovitz recognizes all the signs that the American-system-as-we-know-it can’t survive.

  • Even after crashing the world economy in 2008, the big banks are still too powerful to regulate, and the private-profit/public-risk dynamic still dominates. So given time, they’ll crash the economy again.
  • Greenhouse gases keep accumulating in the atmosphere, but even now that we’re seeing the results in droughts, heat waves, and violent storms, we still can’t raise the will to do anything about it.
  • Inequality keeps growing, regardless of which party holds power. For decades, all the apparent growth in the economy has been captured by the rich. The  average person’s standard of living is not improving at all, even as valuable intangibles (like job security) are being lost.
  • Our health-care system gets ever more expensive, and yet we get worse results than the other wealthy countries.
  • The unlimited corporate money pouring into political campaigns has captured both parties. The Democrats may be slightly less receptive to the corporate agenda, but they can’t stand against it either.

And while he by no means rejects traditional political organizing and movement-building, Alperovitz doesn’t think politics will solve the problem. Historically, progressive change in America happened in two big bursts — the New Deal and the Great Society — and both depended on external circumstances that aren’t likely to recur. The New Deal needed not just the desperation of the Depression, but a conservative president (Hoover) to blame for it. If things had shaken out differently, all that despair could have energized the Right, as in Germany. (Imagine the nativist backlash if the immigrant-backed Catholic liberal Al Smith had won in 1928 and been in the White House when the bottom fell out in 1929.) The Great Society couldn’t have happened without the confidence and generosity that resulted from two decades of widely-shared growth; and that couldn’t have happened if World War II hadn’t wrecked all our industrial competitors.

So yes, political reform movements can make a difference, but only in the presence of circumstances we can’t count on. And that’s pretty much what we’ve been seeing: We had three consecutive wave elections: Democratic in 2006 and 2008, and Republican  in 2010. But how much actual change did they bring?

And if we somehow managed the political will to, say, break up the too-big-to-fail banks, wouldn’t they just merge back together as soon as our attention shifted? Isn’t that what the old AT&T phone monopoly did?

Looking at things that way should make a person pessimistic, right? Not exactly. Alperovitz’s introductory chapter ends like this:

as a historian and political economist, it is obvious to me that difficult historical times do not always or even commonly persist forever. In my judgment “we shall overcome” is not simply a slogan but in fact the likely, though not inevitable, outcome of the long struggle ahead.

It is possible, quite simply, that we may lay the groundwork for a truly American form of community-sustaining and wealth-democratizing transformative change—and thereby also the reconstitution of genuine democracy, step by step, from the ground up.

The key phrase here is “long struggle”. We can’t just be socially conscious and politically active for a few months, elect President Wonderful, and then go back to sleep. We tried that; it didn’t work.

Alperovitz’s long struggle isn’t purely political. It’s more than just a series of marches and demonstrations that you attend before returning to your old life. The struggle he envisions involves creating institutions that democratize wealth: co-ops, credit unions, employee-owned businesses, and so on. Alperovitz envisions replacing the flighty government/capitalist partnerships of today with more stable alliances joining local governments with fixed local institutions (like hospitals and universities) and the worker-and-consumer-owned businesses that could service and supply them.

The seeds of that revolution are all around us. (I suggested painless ways you can start participating two weeks ago.) And Alperovitz believes they may sprout first and best in the places where the old system has failed most completely — rust belt wastelands like Detroit or Cleveland. (He cites Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives, which are modeled on the successful Mondragon Cooperatives of the Basque region of Spain.) His logic is perverse but compelling: As long as capitalists can threaten to move the factory to China, they have the community over a barrel. But after the factory is gone, why listen to capitalists any more?

Alperovitz foresees a snowballing process as each new democratizing institution changes the consciousness of the people who participate and enlarges the constituency for democratically managed solutions. Before long, the resources that communities waste enticing corporations to locate there will instead become available to invest in the community solving its own problems.

David Graeber’s new book The Democracy Project, presents a somewhat different brand of apocalyptic optimism. (His last book, which I also reviewed, was a marvelous work of economic anthropology called Debt: the first 5,000 years.)

Graeber is one of the architects of Occupy Wall Street, and is at least partly responsible for coining the term “the 99%”. That makes him a leading voice in what The New Yorker has dubbed “the anarchist revival“, and puts him in something of a delicate situation: In order to promote anarchism, he has to shut down the media’s attempt to anoint him as the movement’s leader. Graeber is a “horizontal” activist who believes in groups finding consensus, not a “vertical” activist who wants to tell folks what to do. If you think people should either lead, follow, or get out of the way, Graeber is not for you.

The essence of Graeber’s worldview is a question: How would groups co-operate if they knew from the beginning that they couldn’t force dissenters to go along with what the group decides? That makes him more radical than a Libertarian, because Libertarians believe in a police-enforced property system.

Like Alperovitz, Graeber sees the approaching end of the current system, which he believes is based ever-more-nakedly on extracting value by force, under the pretense of increasingly empty rituals like elections and loans and trade agreements. Today’s young people, for example, face a choice between accepting unstable careers at minimum wage or borrowing heavily to get an education, then working as unpaid interns before beginning to earn money to pay off their debts. How different is that from feudalism or slavery?

But he also is optimistic that new ways are sprouting in the shadow of the old. The establishment view of Occupy is that it failed because it didn’t produce a set of demands that could become the platform of a political party. But to Graeber that outcome would have been failure. (In Jensen/Brueggermann terms, it would recast OWS as prophetic rather than apocalyptic.) To make that case, The Democracy Project not only retells the history of Occupy from the inside, it retells the history of American democracy and of revolutionary movements in general.

And the punch line is: The really successful revolutions don’t seize power, they change our common sense about what power is and what it can do. The French and Russian revolutions failed to the extent that they became new governments; Robespierre and Stalin represent the defeat of the revolutionary ideals, not their victory. But both revolutions succeeded as “planetwide transformations of political common sense”. The French Revolution ended monarchy as a viable option for forming new governments, and the Russian Revolution drew a line in the sand that capitalists didn’t dare cross. The New Deal and the social democracy of postwar Europe never would have happened happen without the Russian Revolution.

Similarly, Graeber points to another so-called “failure” — the antiwar movement of the Johnson/Nixon years. Arguably, it didn’t shorten the Vietnam War. But American governments have avoided high-casualty wars for the four decades since. (Put together, the Iraq and Afghan Wars have produced about 1/10th the number of combat deaths as each of the Vietnam and Korean Wars.) That attempt to avoid casualties led to increased “collateral damage” as we bombed from a distance rather than aimed down a barrel. That stiffened local resistance and

pretty much guarantee[d] that the United States couldn’t achieve its military objectives. And remarkably, the war planners seemed to be aware of this. It didn’t matter. They considered it far more important to prevent effective opposition at home than to actually win the war. It’s as if American forces in Iraq were ultimately defeated by the ghost of Abbie Hoffman.

So as Occupy morphs into the future, its goal should not be to launch a new party or seize control of an old one. It should be trying to change political common sense. Graeber closes his book by suggesting places where a change in common sense could make a significant difference. Most have to do with the nature of work, the virtue of working long hours, the value of helping people rather than producing more stuff, and bureaucracy as a problem in both the public and private sectors — a problem that could be avoided if groups organized in ways that didn’t require forcing dissenters to co-operate.

Graeber does not minimize or wish away the signs of global catastrophe, but Occupy has made him hopeful because

the age of revolutions is by no means over. The human imagination stubbornly refuses to die. And the moment any significant number of people simultaneously shake off the shackles that have been placed on that collective imagination, even our most deeply inculcated assumptions about what is and is not politically possible have been known to crumble overnight.


* I’ve never thought about R.E.M. and the Tarot in the same sitting before, so I never noticed: Isn’t that the Fool’s dog in the End of the World video?

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  • By Dissidents | The Weekly Sift on June 17, 2013 at 10:58 am

    […] But I wrote about Apocalyptic Optimism […]

  • By Making Lives Better | The Weekly Sift on July 1, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    […] I reviewed David Graeber’s The Democracy Project in the previous Sift, I was impressed by his observation that revolutions should be judged as “planetwide […]

  • By The Yearly Sift: 2013 | The Weekly Sift on December 30, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    […] Alperovitz and The Democracy Project by David Graeber reflected a rare attitude I labeled “Apocalyptic Optimism”. The vision of an economy with more cooperation and less competition led me to discuss The Penguin […]

  • By Crumbling Shackles | The Weekly Sift on June 29, 2015 at 11:38 am

    […] David Graeber, The Democracy Project […]

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