Opportunity in collapse: the horizon of the post-apocalyptic
By Joseph Todd On May 12, 2015
What will happen when the state collapses? Will society descend into lawlessness, or can we seize the opportunity to let our human potential flourish?
Image: a scene from the dystopian movie Children of Men (2006).
The American literary critic and Marxist political theorist Frederic Jameson famously remarked that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But what we don’t often consider is how capitalism influences our end-worldview.
The horizon of the post-apocalyptic is usually bleak: isolated individuals trudging through the wilderness, surviving only through violence, cunning and mutual distrust. The human race, without the coercive machinations of the state, descending into a brutal barbarism where every relationship is pragmatic, rationally calculated and based on nothing but self-interest.
Our cultural output throbs with this notion of the “evil anarchic”. Take any post-apocalyptic or future dystopia film of the last few decades and you’ll be sure to find dialogue referencing the degeneration of the human spirit or a scene exemplifying the impossibility of co-operation.
The concentration camp in Children of Men is miserable and threatening. The market in Soylent Green is vicious. The Road, The Book of Eli, the Harlan Ellison novel A Boy and His Dog — all are predicated on the concurrent collapse of civilization and rise of the evil anarchic. On the idea that the state can only be abolished by an apocalyptic act, and that its absence necessarily gives way to nefarious gang rule and brutal violence.
When the state collapses
We must question whether this narrative is accurate. Does collapse necessarily lead to misery? Can the state only be abolished by an apocalyptic event? Is the choice between apocalypse and hierarchy a false one?
We must question because this end-worldview justifies our present social order. Capitalism in all its cruelty becomes an inevitable reflection of man’s barbarous nature. The state and its use of force are justified in that they tame us, impelling us to defy our selfish natures. Evil becomes the province of the unshackled individual, free of society and legal consequence.
Indeed, the horrors of ISIS are trumpeted so vehemently by the Western press precisely because they fit this narrative: that without law, order and the state we would run rampant. That capitalism, although unfair, is not as bad as things could be. That fear-induced conservatism is the only sensible political orientation.
However, if we venture a few hundred miles north of where ISIS are destroying treasured cultural artefacts and beheading foreign journalists and aid workers, we find ourselves in Rojava; the autonomous region of Northern Syria. Famed for their heroic mixed-gender defence of Kobane, the residents of Rojava, who are majority Kurdish but also include Christians, Arabs and Yazidis, have achieved what most would have thought impossible: a social revolution based on feminism, ecology and grassroots democracy in the heart of the Middle East.
In Rojava, at least, the withdrawal of state forces did not bring about brutality and lawlessness but instead opened up a space for a flourishing of human potential. The region is now run by a network of neighborhood assemblies which decide wherever they can by consensus. Workplaces have been turned into cooperatives. Academies have been established that aim to educate all in a broad and practical way, reversing the expertization of work by the Assad regime.
Women’s liberation is at the heart of the revolution, with a gender-balanced co-chairing system for every position of authority and all women’s assemblies that have veto power over issues affecting women. Even justice is meted out in a consensual, cooperative way, with community-based tribunals that bring together the victim, the accused and their families to agree on an appropriate means of conflict resolution.
All of this in a region that the Western media often portrays as brutal, barbarian and backwards. All possible because a retreating state opened the way for the Kurdish liberation movement to take over and, after decades of tireless grassroots organizing, start building democratic autonomy.
When the police retreat
A similar phenomenon in the West can be observed when the coercive forces we most often come into contact with — the police rather than the army — are in retreat. Instead of mobbing, robbing and looting, we actually see the very opposite. Just look to the recent New York police strike. In retaliation for Mayor De Blasio’s anti-police comments in the wake of the Eric Garner murder, rank-and-file officers enacted an unofficial enforcement slowdown, with arrest rates dropping to near zero for petty crime and by 55 percent overall.
Yet counter to the scare stories of chaos and lawlessness touted by the right-wing press, crime rates actually fell. Not only does this fatally undermine the “broken window” policing theory that heavily punishing petty crime will reduce more serious crime; it also runs absolutely counter to the idea that the only thing standing between the individual and evil is coercive force.
In a similar vein, we can observe a spatial (rather than temporal) retreat of the police in the Athenian district of Exarchia. An area mainly populated by anarchists, activists and students who have, after decades of violent struggle with the police, managed to establish what the anarchist geographer Antonis Vradis describes as a “spatial contract”, whereby the police implicitly agree not to invade the area in the hope that its anarchic character won’t spread to the rest of Athens. Despite a rise in drug dealing (largely due to a deliberate strategy by the state to herd addicts towards the district) it is nowhere close to the nadir of anomie that many would instinctively expect. In fact it is quite the opposite.
Not only is Exarchia a hotbed of solidarity and mutual aid with a flourishing scene of co-operatives, squatted social centers, volunteer-run medical facilities, reclaimed community parks and active neighborhood assemblies; it has even evolved into one of the safest areas in the Greek capital for women and immigrants to walk around alone at night. In the last few years, it has been deemed stable (and hip) enough for capital to start tentatively gentrifying the area, with cocktail bars and bourgeois restaurants appearing alongside the squatted cafés around the central square.
Examples such as these challenge the perceived role of the police. They hint at the fact that the police exist not to keep our evil natures in check but instead to defend inequality and private property. That they were created not to solve crime but instead to control crowds (i.e., protesters). That disorder is so often not a result of setting people free but instead of their systematic cultural and economic disenfranchisement from society. Or, as in the 2011 London riots and the recent riots in Baltimore, because of persecution by the police themselves.
When disaster strikes
Of course the wholesale breakdown of Western society still remains the preserve of fiction. But if we can view it in microcosm today, it must be when natural disasters decimate our cities, as Rebecca Solnit outlined in her book A Paradise Built in Hell. If we look to the events of Hurricane Katrina and Sandy we again uncover this belief in the evil anarchic and its disconnect from reality.
In the aftermath of Katrina, when state forces were largely absent from the streets of New Orleans, it was widely assumed by the media that lawlessness had broken out, with various outlets canvassing wall-to-wall reports of raping, looting and violence. However, aside from a few minor instances, the vast majority of these reports turned out to be untrue.
Slavoj Žižek rightly highlights the racist overtones of the reportage, with white middle-class journalists assuming the reports were true because they were supposed to be committed by poor blacks, knowing the stories would make good copy for their majority white readership.
Intertwined with this racism, however, is our notion of the “evil anarchic”: the idea that if human beings are unshackled from societal restraints they will necessarily descend into barbarism. A more indicative (and under-reported) instance of societal non-breakdown would be Hurricane Sandy, where local residents came together under the Occupy banner to house and feed those left adrift by the state. Here is where we find a meaningful example of our species in its natural state: kind, cooperative and generous in the face of adversity.
It thus turns out that our view of the apocalyptic is necessarily bound up with our pessimistic view of human nature and the world around us. Ever since Hobbes, civilization and the state have been our savior from a brutish, natural realm; a place we go for adventure, one of risk and daring that only those more unfortunate than us inhabit.
Yet this notion of a violent, competitive, dog-eat-dog natural world with which capitalism and the state justify themselves is in part a fallacy. In fact, nature teems with co-operation — both between animals, between species and within the ecosystem as a whole.
Recognizing our cooperative nature
Peter Kropotkin, the 19th-century Russian zoologist whose work proceeded much of the research on cooperation in evolution today, argued that natural life, although competitive, is also replete with examples of cooperation, noting how “sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.”
And indeed, we know this to be true. Because what is a pack of wolves, a school of fish, a pride of lions or a crash of rhinos if not an exercise in co-operation? Or a colony of ants, where female workers sacrifice their fertility to defend that of the queens? Or the incredibly synchronized movement of a flock of starlings, only possible if each individual bird is utterly reliant on its neighbor for direction?
And if we look to ourselves, we find we are not as selfish and calculated as the ideologists of late capitalism would have it. When we play with our children, make love to our partners, care for our elderly relatives or help out with local community projects, are we being greedy, selfish or individualistic? Are such actions rationally calculated exchanges where we constantly adhere to the principle of individual benefit?
Of course there are areas of life where we do act as such — at work or in business, for instance. But it is no coincidence that these arenas are both dominated by capital and constructed in a way that systematically rewards the uglier sides of our common human nature.
Although the elite and their ideologues, most notably Herbert Spencer and the Social Darwinists, have ignored this essentially co-operative side of both humans and nature, it has become a mainstay in modern evolutionary biology. We can count leading primatologist Frans De Waal, Jessica Flack, Lee Dugatkin and the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers among its proponents. The latter’s work on reciprocal altruism actually formed the basis for much of Dawkins’ Selfish Gene, a book that the author himself claimed was as much about co-operation as it was about selfishness.
Seizing the opportunity
Asserting an optimistic, or at least malleable view of human nature is essential for the radical. Not only does it alleviate the instinctual nervousness towards change that many people feel, but it undermines the naturalization of capitalism — the notion that our current system is simply a pragmatic reflection of human nature and the way the world is.
We often forget that the vast majority of people know in their gut that the world is unfair; that a few have too much and most have too little. Their barrier to action is rarely lack of knowledge but instead lack of hope. The feeling that capitalism, inequality and injustice are inevitable. The idea that to struggle for a better world is naive, and that if the system were to collapse, a far worse tyranny would rear its head — that of the individual unleashed.
So here we must go further. Not only should we argue that human beings have the capacity for good and evil and that the natural world isn’t always cruel and vicious, but we must emphasize that the darker sides of our nature are often unleashed not when social order breaks down, but in precisely the opposite situation: when order and hierarchy are most rigorously maintained.
Consider the Nazi bureaucrats who pulled the levers in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, the test subjects at Yale who thought they were electrocuting an individual to death, the volunteers in the Stanford prison experiment who morphed into authoritarian prison guards, or indeed the soldiers who kill Pakistani children using unmanned drones and Xbox controllers. Evil, we find, is so often the result not of leaving individuals in a natural state for them to make decisions and take responsibility, but the exact opposite: when they are cogs in a machine, subjugated to authority and absolved of all personal responsibility.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should simply wait for the implosion of the capitalist state and expect utopia to arise spontaneously from its ashes. We can only entrench the cooperative, compassionate and empathetic sides of our nature as dominant values in society if we struggle against those who aim to exploit and systemize our more cycnical capacities. The capitalists who would pit us against each other via the construct of the labor market. The religious ideologues who persuade us to behead, rape and kill in exchange for an easing of our existential angst. The imperialists who encourage the very same acts in service of an amorphous set of national values randomly attributed by birth. Or the fascists, who would see the abolition of the individual and the institutionalization of collective violence in aid of order, stability and unity.
There is opportunity in collapse. But if we look to the concurrent rise of ISIS and Rojava in the vacuum of the Syrian civil war, or that of the Greek social solidarity movement and the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn during the collapse of the Greek welfare state, we see that there is no guarantee to whose benefit it will be. Which is why, whenever the opportunity arises, we must be prepared to seize it.
Joseph Todd is a writer and activist who has been published in The Baffler, Salon and CounterFire, among others. For more writings, visit his website.