Being on the left can be overwhelming. Basically, you feel like you are aimlessly haunting the digestive tract of a beast that has devoured you. You no longer know any way of being outside the pulling and constricting muscles of this gullet, along with the sensory overload coming from noxious acids fizzing at the end of a tunnel, acids specially designed to erase you.
You know that every attempt at analysis or charting has extreme stakes, as you and everyone you love are being dragged further along an organ chain where the light is less visible and where death is even more certain. You need a vision and a rope, a continued, mutually reinforcing theory and strategy of action.
Even this image isn’t gloomy enough in a sense, because there are lots of people in this situation who have been worn out, traumatised and jaded by other, overlapping systems of domination beyond the exploitation having to sell their labour power to capitalists.
These groups are oppressed by ancient and irrational systems which remain in full force, propped up by religion and current politicians, who have to fight even harder just to make it and to have hope. Even in our common doom, there are divisions among the human inhabitants of the gullet.
There are also people who, even as the sticky digestive muscles push down on their vertibrae, cannot realise the situation they are in. The passage of doom is lined with accolades and awards, trophies from liberal charities and foundations for stellar leadership in Climate Solutions or LGBT inclusion*, and an all-consuming spectacle of public relations.
So, yes, in that environment it is so easy to be overwhelmed. It can feel like being burdened with a whole new level of understanding of exactly how constrained you are, of the fakeness and futility of every vision you might have had for your life that might have gotten you through the day.
It can seem like every institution, even the benign seeming ones, like UN agencies or your local school, are hexed by the logic of the system. A system ultimately about alienation, quantification, accumulation for some, dispossession for the many and, incredible violence.
When you have this understanding of the world, as historically informed and well researched as it might be, it is easy to feel like you no longer fit in. Sometimes it feels like your sense of the world is where the problem lies.
If you are like me, realising you were gay early on in life and having this split between yourself and the world of ideals and representations, it feels like your emotional home .
Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ has been a central text for me in recent months in understanding that this feeling of distance and wondering if I have lost touch with reality is actually quite understandable in a society built on forms of separation and impression management. We are always directed to bourgeoisie society’s presentation of itself.
Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the result and the project of the dominant mode of production. It is not a mere decoration added to the real world. It is the very heart of this real society’s unreality. In all of its particular manifestations — news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment — the spectacle represents the dominant model of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production. In both form and content the spectacle serves as a total justification of the conditions and goals of the existing system.
The Spectacle of Scientism
So, within much of my research at the moment, at the meeting point of ecology and anti-capitalism, a source of continued anxiety is knowing that you are not just challenging an official narrative and approach, but one that is couched in all of the wonderful associations of scientific inquiry. Part of the struggle we constantly seem to get pulled into is trying to delineate what claims are genuinely emerging out of scientific consensus and inquiry, and which claims are using the language and the husk of science, a sort of scientism, to conceal operations of power.
According to Jurgen Habermas- ‘Scientism buys the supposed scientification of philosophy by renouncing the task of self-understanding, which philosophy has inherited from the great world religions, though with the intention of the enlightenment.’
Although there is no one definition of this concept that captures all of this, scientism reigns wherever there is a creation of the impression of rationality and objectivity in order to erase subjective experience. Scientism is felt when officials attempt to push through a project with social and political implications by using the language and authority of scientific ‘truth’.
It is important to have this phrase in your vocabulary as a leftist, because it really does tell us something about the operation of power within society. What better way to disguise the exorcising of unaccountable power than to launder it through the tradition which we hold within the highest esteem within contemporary society – the scientific method.
The spectacle of scientism, as a framing trick, attempts to draw similarities between an elite, corporate and managerial class and scientific inquiry in general. Detractors from narratives of ‘progress’ and technological management become conspiracy theorists, or stuck in the past. Processes which should be democratic and dialogical, such as debates around international development, become the specific domain of technocrats, the IMF, the World Bank and the World Economic Forum.
Rather than respond to the arguments from a democratic, humanistic and revolutionary counter-force, it is easier, within the society of the spectacle, to deal with us as cranks, which is not an accurate picture of what we are about or our arguments.
While the form of ‘scientism’ seems like an issue facing leftists within the 21st century, this representational fight is definitely not a new struggle, as revealed in the idea of the spectacle;
‘the root of the spectacle is that oldest of all social specializations, the specialization of power. The spectacle plays the specialized role of speaking in the name of all the other activities. It is hierarchical society’s ambassador to itself, delivering its official messages at a court where no one else is allowed to speak. The most modern aspect of the spectacle is thus also the most archaic.’
Scientism and Earth Systems Governance
In the recent work in the area of environmental monitoring and ‘sustainable’ growth, Ariel Salleh (2015) has discussed the influence of scientism in the field. This idea reveals itself particularly when looking at ‘Earth Systems Governance’. The Earth Systems Governance framework proposes that natural and social systems, or the human-environment interface, can be governed by building consensus with state and private actors on a global scale. ESG has been taken up by multiple research centres and Universities across Europe, and has been supported by funders as diverse as the King of Spain and the Volkswagen Foundation.
The ESG approach is premised on the scientism, Salleh argues, manifesting itself in the enlightenment era ideals of classical physics which emphasise the human separation from and potential domination of nature. While this idea is now discredited, it stalks the earth like the undead, reborn from the cold earth of policy making circles, such as those behind ESG. It attempts to apply mechanical reasoning to partly-understood natural feedback systems. Nature is both external and objectified in this modelling by policy elites, simplifying both natural systems and social life.
Any risk calculations about climate disruption or habitat depletion distributed by this set of actors is problematic, as it is always trying to balance our living alongside an ecological world of other creatures, with the potential for unlimited economic growth. This is the ecological and the social which they are hoping to integrate.
It also means that the potential for perceived harms is weighed against the opportunity for profit-seeking and economic gain- particularly of those actors who have a say at the table, such as state representatives from nations in the Global North.
As Salleh states- ‘in a neoliberal economic system geared to material accumulation, the role of technocrat professionals is to objectify, ‘design and control’ living human and external nature as a resource base for entrepreneurs.’
This system of technocratic rule is the dominant mode of environmental policy making. We see it everywhere in environmental policy, from the currency of ‘carbon credits’, which imply that distinct ecosystems and effects can be objectified and made into equivalences to be traded across global markets, and in the idea of ‘selling nature in order to save it’. We even see it in the simplification of diverse human interactions with their ecosystem into self-interest maximisation, through the influence of classical economics in this arena.
Technocracy forever? The example of Climate Smart Agriculture
Such a critical approach to technocratic, top-down management of the environment is also put forward by Newell and Taylor (2018), in the area of climate-smart agriculture. Newell and Taylor (2018) have a Gramscian analysis of the institutional arrangements surrounding the promotion of climate-smart agriculture, or CSA.
CSA is an umbrella term for a broad range of technological farming systems, encompassing everything from specialised site mapping to assist with crop planting, to drought or pesticide resistant GM crops.
Importantly, the CSA model doesn’t posit sharing the technological capacity which underpins its vision with the maximum number of people possible, including farmers and communities, to unlock their libertarian potential. It fully assumes these technologies will remain the intellectual property of a small number of corporations and institutions.
In this way, a familiar cast of transnational corporations will be able to extract value from the roll-out of CSA as a top-down strategy of food production in the face of a warming and destabilized climate system. CSA, in food production, shares the scientism of ESG in the area of ecosystem and resource management, as the utopian to nothing less than survival of the economic system, with all its violent exclusions and contradictions. The maintenance of class power is secured.
Concluding thoughts, hope
So, it might seem thoroughly depressing just to dwell on how hard it is to be a leftist. It seems that many processes which present themselves as rational and consensual are actually just the continuation of the hegemonic order through the spectacle of scientism.
While Earth Systems Governance may seem like the pinnacle of scientific discovery and ingenuity, the logic which drives it, namely the separation of the ecological from the social in the Cartesian dualism, the reduction of social life to an immortal capitalism, is archaic and outmoded.
By revealing the flaws in this logic, the contradictions and omissions, we reveal the operation of power and the one-sided communications of power which masquerade themselves as science.
Yet there is room to be hopeful too, as approaches sidelined by the official narratives of CSA and ESG provide the clues to unmasking the spectacle of technocratic control. Not only that, but we can perhaps replace it with human emancipation and environmental transformation.
We find these in the ecology, at least as defined by Murray Bookchin. Bookchin (1964) sees ecology as an inherently critical science, ‘The issues with which ecology deals are imperishable in the sense that they cannot be ignored without bringing into question the viability of the planet, indeed the survival of man himself.’
Ecology doesn’t rely on discredited dualisms but integrates human social life within the whole of socio-history and ecosystems that we are in relationship with.
Permaculture practice encourages us to ‘value the marginal’, which could lead to radical changes to our societies built on social marginalisation and divide-and-conquer tactics. This is a radical challenge to our social order, which currently places the lives and mental health of migrants, ethnic minorities and LGBTQ people under threat.
Permaculture experiments, recorded by Brawner (2015), in Central-Eastern Europe have also featured radical new conceptions of what ‘wealth’ means, including time and freedom. Capitalism creates a ‘monoculture’ in terms of wealth, as it is only seen as relating to money and material possessions.
Within Brawner’s (2015) work with permaculture communities in Central Eastern Europe, citizens and residents of nations had experience with both the state-capitalism of the USSR and adjustment into neoliberal capitalism, two apparently polar projects of modernist development within the last century. Participants in Brawner’s study maintained a scepticism towards both state and corporate communication and management.
Many of these permaculture gardens were generations old (we might call them perennial), surpassing both economic systems, integrating new methods with the old, traditional planting with new tastes shaped by new communities and migrations.
These were even present in the companion planting schemes of the gardeners, the three sisters, which combined beans, corn and squash, even though squash is not native to this region. The system they had developed was both outward looking and forward facing. Old binaries were displaced, in the mixing of the native and the integrated, the folk knowledge and the scientific method, which people engaged with in reading and through their experiments in seeds and soil.
This was also expressed in the idea of a folk knowledge of loopholes; ways of living around the system which was imposed from above, or ‘finding the little gate within the larger’.
I can’t help but feel that this is so inspiring, especially in the context of the UK media, where we often hear about loopholes as points of the most extreme corporate and elite exploitation.
However, rather than rallying to man the barricades of the breaking-down, catastrophe-prone capitalist system from elite norm-violators, perhaps finding these autonomous spaces where we, as revolutionaries, can experiment with alternatives is the most hopeful and dialogical role we can have. It is here that the community can come together, and discover ways of being and sustaining themselves and each other beyond the wage system. Perhaps it is in this space that revolutionary theory may be able to combine with communal actions.
Maybe I am drawn to this approach because I have always felt like an outsider and norm-violator- can’t say that hasn’t impacted my politics! But, there is something so beautiful about this image of the integrative, soil-enriching, ecosystem respecting worlds of colours and flowers in the permaculture gardens which contrasts the binary dualisms, the monocultures and control of technocratic management.
It seems that there are ways of reintegrating the social and the ecological beyond neoliberal management and, smashing the divisions of hierarchical society, ways that technocrats would rather went unspoken!
Perhaps class consciousness can bloom from the cultivation of well-loved soil.
[*Jeff Bezos was granted the Equality Award in 2017 from the Human Rights Campaign for his championing of LGBTQ causes. Jeff Bezos is the richest man on earth and, as owner of Amazon, accused of multiple worker rights’ violations, including failing to provide air-conditioning in US distribution centres during summer and instead having onsite ambulances to deal with heat exhaustion.]
Bookchin, M., 1964. Ecology and Revolutionary Thought, retrieved from The Anarchist Library, <https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/lewis-herber-murray-bookchin-ecology-and-revolutionary-thought >
Brawner, J., 2015. Permaculture in the margins: realizing Central European regeneration. Journal of Political Ecology, 22(1), pp.429-444.
Fletcher, R., Dressler, W. and Büscher, B., 2015. ‘NatureTM Inc.: nature as neoliberal capitalist imaginary’ in Bryant, R., L. The International Handbook of Political Ecology, London:T. J. International Ltd. 359-373.
Newell, P. and Taylor, O., 2018. Contested landscapes: the global political economy of climate-smart agriculture. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 45(1), pp.108-129.
Salleh, A., 2015. Neoliberalism, scientism and Earth System Governance in Bryant, R., L. The International Handbook of Political Ecology, London:T. J. International Ltd. 432-447.
About the Author:
Dan McMahon is a shop worker and an animal welfare worker, who is a member of The Political Economy of Veganism research group. They are also active in popular education and migrant solidarity in Glasgow.