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Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Response to Rob Hopkins

This is a response to Rob Hopkins of Transition Network's response (deep breath) to a booklet called Rocky Road to a Real Transition published by Trapese Collective. Rob's article can be found on his blog. The Trapese booklet is here.

First they came for the migrants, and I did not speak out because it’s a very complex issue and we are a small island and we can’t just let anybody in, although I don’t agree with the detention centres, but they don’t talk about those in the Guardian very much, and it’s not an environmental issue.

Then they came for the anti-vivisection activists, and I did not speak out because if I started thinking about all that stuff I’d probably have to become vegan and that would be too much hassle and I like cheese, and medicines do save lives and those animal rights activists are a bit dodgy and intense and scruffy-looking, certainly not smart polite people like me.

Then they came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out because it’s an oppressive monotheistic patriarchal religion and maybe some of them actually are terrorists, otherwise why would there be so much on telly about terrorism? And I don’t know how to cook those funny vegetables they sell in Whitechapel market.

Then they came for the anarchists, and I did not speak out because all that confrontational activism is so outdated and if you think too much about the negative then you just give energy to it and if you don’t want to get battered and arrested then you shouldn’t go on demonstrations in the first place – what do you expect if you don’t do what you’re told?

Rob, although I do not agree with everything in the Trapese booklet, I found some of your response to it chilling in its refusal of solidarity. I’m not suggesting that the Transition Network should engage in activist tactics, and I do agree with you that what we might call the positive and negative aspects of all this are two sides of the same project. However I do believe that this discussion has revealed some serious flaws in the way the Transition Network is conceived and organised.

Anyone who is thinking about how we will live in the future needs to take into account all important factors about how that future will look. Clearly climate change and peak oil are two of the most important and will totally change the way the human species lives for the rest of our (possibly short) future. But in my analysis there is a third factor, which is at least equally important and is fundamentally connected to the other two. That factor is the ever accelerating rise of global imperialism and fascism. The US / corporate imperial war is already directly affecting the lives of vast numbers of people. If you were living in Iraq now, you would not be waiting for the apocalypse. You would be living in it.

Now, fascism. That’s not a word I use lightly, but with some historical knowledge of what classical fascism is. Three of my grandparents and other family members were survivors of Nazi extermination (their parents did not survive), so I have always considered it my duty to understand this phenomenon, to be aware of oppression, and to watch out for the warning signs. Of course today’s fascism is not in the same form as that of Nazism or of Spain and Italy around the mid-20th century. The techniques of control have become more sophisticated in some ways, at least in the wealthy regions of the world. In much of the world it’s exactly the same old fascism. Look what happens to trade union members in South America or environmental activists in Nigeria. Look what’s happening in Colombia. And these local third-world fascisms are absolutely connected to the global empire. But in North America and Europe, another, more sophisticated fascism is rapidly appearing, based on overwhelming mass mind control rather than ubiquitous overt violence (although that balance is shifting). The mind control techniques of the mass media work in various ways. One is through unsophisticated knee-jerk reactions like the racist ‘immigration’ agenda; another is through sophisticated knee-jerk reactions like the dizzy New Age peace-police refusal to recognise the existence of oppression and struggle.

Here are some of the basic ideological concepts of classical fascism, drawn from the Italian version: expansionist militarism; nationalism, often with explicit or implicit racism; conformism; nationalist class collaboration; and corporatism – the ‘union of state and corporate power’ (Mussolini), all of which are now dominant ideologies of Western governments, often so dominant that they are implicit. The liberal rule of law has already been fundamentally undermined. A few pointers to watch out for are: a change in the balance of the relationship between the state and the individual so that it is no longer a question of what you’re not allowed to do but of what you are allowed to do; attacks on habeas corpus; movement away from the rule of law towards executive government; more political laws; creation of a national security agenda; hysterical myth-making about a sinister national threat; emergency powers that allow suspension of the constitution; a cultural hardening of conformity, intolerance and self-policing. All of these things have already happened. The minimal state theory of classical liberalism has effectively been abandoned for an escalating authoritarianism built on terrorism hysteria painstakingly constructed by the state / corporate media. It’s an absolutely classic manoeuvre. I’m not making prophetic predictions for the future here. All of these things have already happened. The reason hardly anyone has noticed is that most people are already so hypnotised and obedient that they are doing what the state wants them to do anyway.

Now, Rob and his followers: you may not personally value the relative freedoms of political dissent allowed under the liberal model of government, because you (conveniently) choose tactics that do not bring you into conflict with the state. But you should be alarmed at what is happening to those who do choose to follow their moral convictions even when it involves personal risk. Even if, secure in your New Age corporate motivational-management clich├ęs, you do not feel solidarity (a lack of compassion despicable in itself) for those you consider deluded by outdated paradigms of struggle, you may consider us a political barometer which is giving you some serious warning signs. If you want to know what direction things are going, look at what happens to animal rights activists. They are getting years in prison just for attending demonstrations. Yes, yes, I know going on demonstrations is so 1970s and no doubt they have unresolved issues about their parents, but surely that doesn’t mean you can just look on smugly and allow them to be viciously repressed by the state. Ah, but the state doesn’t exist. That’s alright then.

Isn’t it ironic, by the way, that it always seems to be anarchists who end up trying to defend the liberal rule of law against the (former) liberals?

The state clearly does exist. It has armed, coercive institutions with clearly identifiable personnel and buildings. Certainly it requires the hypnotised obedience of masses of people in order to continue existing, but it still exists. If you only behave within the boundaries it sets, you may not notice that it exists. You can decorate your prison cell very nicely, and you can even philosophise it away if you like. But if you follow through the logic of certain ethical principles, you will find that the state violently prevents your actions. Or is that just because I want to fuck my mother, Louis? The chilling logic of the smug New Age refusal of solidarity is that the Transition Town movement would be quite happy for all the Muslims, anarchists and other scum to be wiped off the face of the earth because that won’t interfere with its project at all and they were so troublesome and wrongheaded anyway. And it would be quite happy to function as a sector of a future fascist government. I don’t see anything in TT ideology that rules out collaborating with an authoritarian government, or with a racist-nationalist government for that matter.

There are different kinds of police. There are the hard police who wear uniforms, carry weapons, beat protestors, protect vivisectors and arms dealers, enforce deportations, illegally evict squats, harass homeless people and so on (maybe you don’t believe they exist but I think there are photographs that will prove it). Then there are the soft police who ideologically support and defend them in various ways. One of those ways is to philosophically finesse your way out of recognising the existence of oppression so you end up in a ‘love the oppressor, hate the oppressed’ mentality, with the help of a few sickly catchphrases pressed into service from a vicious and fanatical perversion of personal spirituality corrupted to serve the interests of greed and vanity (i.e. New Age management-speak). I prefer the hard police. At least I know where I stand with them.

Of course the slide into violent authoritarianism is not inevitable. But it can only be avoided by mass resistance against it. And that resistance can only begin when the existence of the problem is recognised. Ignoring it will not make it go away, just as ignoring the warnings of ecological catastrophe in the 1950s and 60s did not make it go away.

W.H. Auden, by the way, went to Spain in the 1930s to aid the Republican struggle against fascism. He also stood up against nationalism and other oppressive beliefs in his poetry. So I’m afraid you can’t rope him in. And the Zapatistas? Dear me. The Zapatistas are Marxists. Their entire philosophy is based on struggle. Yes, of course all they want is to live peacefully in their autonomous communities – that’s what we all want. But they have had to fight a guerrilla war against the Mexican army to get there! Try telling them that the state doesn’t exist! (I can see it now. Subcommandante Marcos in a positive thinking seminar: “So do you realise that when your family were slaughtered in front of your eyes by a right-wing paramilitary death squad trained, funded and armed by the Mexican and US governments, it wasn’t state oppression but a manifestation of your negative thoughts?”)

But how about this: what if, after a few more years of escalating repression and conformity, the non-existent state decides that all environmental campaigners are a threat to the corporate conquest of the world? What if they’re not too happy about people organising themselves autonomously in any way whatsoever (going back only to the mid-19th century, there were times when all public assembly was banned)? What if Rob Hopkins becomes an enemy of the state? What will you do then? Transition Camp X-Ray?


james said...

This is a really good article... I'm amazed no one else has left comments, considering the number on Rob's site, maybe you should stick this on his blog so people look at it. In the meantime, I'm forwarding it round people.

I think your Martin Niemoller adaptation is spot on (and a big improvement of the similar attempt made during the CJA-era).

I think Transition Towns can be really valuable, local action is not only essential for practical reasons but because it engages people in a movement and allows them to see that change is possible, indeed is going on all the time in one direction or the other - rather than some distant hope.

As such, they could be a way of challenging the current rise in fascistic ways of thinking, but as you point out (perhaps a little too provocatively), only if they drop a little of the new-agey-management speak, in favour of engagement with seeing TT's in their present and historical, global and national place in social struggle.

And start thinking about the implications of things like Carbon Rationing in the context of ID Cards and the recent loss of civil liberties. You are so right about how easy it is for people to see the state as benign or even non-existent when they aren't challenging it. If more people from TTs had been at the recent Climate Camp, I wonder if their views would have changed? There you saw clear examples of what's in store for protesters - both environmental and the likely frustrations we will expressed through stuggle by normal people as Climate Change and Peak Oil start to bite.

I raised the issue of Israel's Apartheid Wall, and the rise in Gated community's and private security in South Africa, Brazil, the US, the UK, and around the world with Richard Heniberg when he came to speak - suggesting that we had to challenge these trends as part of the Peak Oil/Climate Change problem if we were to end up with a livable future. I pointed out that there will be people who are prepared to fight to protect their wealth and privilege. His reponse was only that he couldn't advocate armed revolution. Fair enough, but you can't solve a problem by ignoring it.

ddashnaw said...

Transition Towns is a middle class movement, essentially metaphysical in its arguments. It's peak oil and climate change meets Dorothy. If you click your heels 3 times you will not be back in Kansas. And you 'd better pay attention to the man behind the curtain. TT is a vain, vague, and vaporous response to our current crisis. It is also obnoxiously full of itself, and seeks to subsume all other similar activism into its fog.