Does Catastrophe Lead To Positive Social Action?

So many people have, maybe forever, been trying to figure out how to improve the political, social, environmental, educational and other conditions in our world. I have been reading two books lately that have helped me and might be of help to others in thinking about social action. I will write about one this week, and the second next week.


It is tempting to think that almost anything that can be done should be done in order to stop a wrong from being committed. If the world is on its way to destruction, shouldn’t any act be deemed acceptable to stop it? Last weekend, I heard Sasha Lilley, writer, political analyst, host of Pacifica Radio’s Against The Grain, talk in Buffalo Street Bookstore about Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth. She is one of four authors, along with David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis. “Catastrophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse… a great cleansing out of which a new society will be born.” Catastrophists tend to believe “disaster will waken the masses from their long slumber” and act for a utopian revival.


We might think Rosa Parks, for example, just sat down on the bus one day and created the bus boycott and civil rights legislation, and ignore all the actions she did before and after that. We might think the Arab spring was one day’s or one season’s awakening. We might think “increase the repression and people will wake up and act.” We might think we should create a fear of the possible end of the world and people will spontaneously rise up to prevent that catastrophe.  Increasing the fear, pain, discomfort of the masses doesn’t necessarily promote social change—it just promotes fear and pain.


Such thinking has catapulted the right-wing into the headlines. Back in 2007, in the book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein made clear how a crisis mentality is being manipulated by those in economic and political power to shock people into accepting the unacceptable. After the shock of Katrina, public housing, schools, hospitals in New Orleans were taken over by private interests. After 9/11, the “War on Terror” was turned into a “for-profit venture” benefitting large corporations. The analysis also applies to education, where the right wing controlled media tell us our public schools are in a crisis of poor grades and the solution is privatization. The examples go on and on. Fear does not promote clear thinking; it inhibits it.


According to Sasha’s research, Catastrophism is deeply reactionary. It supports the right-wing politics of fear and repression, austerity and gated communities. The power of the right-wing increases in a crisis and capitalism tends to renew itself, not burn out. Social action decreases. When people don’t have a job, they usually don’t organize and rarely demonstrate for better working conditions or a more equal distribution of wealth. They want an income. I think the term is disciplining labor. When there’s no hope, there’s little positive action.


Sasha also pointed out that a public space is needed where big groups of progressive people can come together to openly examine headlines, discuss social conditions, and events. Where organizing can be planned and a movement can be born. The corporate media is not that space. Political parties have not been that space. The internet so far (despite blogs such as this one) has not been that space. How can that common space be created? How can a movement be created?


I highly recommend Catastrophism. It would make great reading for a social studies class of teenagers or anyone else caught up in a crisis mentality.


The Interview


Sasha Lilley, producer and interviewer of Pacifica Radio’s Against The Grain, interviewed me a few weeks ago. The interview was about alternative education or student centered learning, the attacks on public schools, how to teach to meet the needs of a diverse population, and how to teach critical thinking using mindfulness. It was aired on the radio last week. Here is a link to it.


Mon 6.16.14 | The Radical Philosophy of Alternative Public Education | Against the Grain: A Program about Politics, Society and Ideas


In the interview, I talked about using questions to engage students and develop their critical intellect. As an illustration, I used the historical question: Why was Socrates executed by his city-state, Athens? In the interview, I did not give adequate background to the question.


Socrates, who was one of the most influential philosophers in history, certainly Western history, was probably both a hero and a pain in the butt. His methods clearly irritated many of his contemporaries. He was charged with impiety and with corrupting minors, by encouraging his students to question their assumptions and beliefs. He was the teacher of several notable people, including Plato, who taught Aristotle, who taught Alexander The Great. He was executed in 399 BCE, just five years after Athens had lost the Peloponnesian Wars, had lost their once glorious empire and seen their democracy destroyed and rebuilt. The wars had spanned over 30 years. When given the opportunity to escape a death sentence but be exiled from his home, he declined. So, why was Socrates executed?


I was also unclear in explaining why test scores are poor vehicles for diagnosing what students have learned. When tests compare student achievement, as by using a curve or by ranking how the student stood in relation to other students, they do not say what a student actually knows. If everyone in a group does poorly, scoring 90% does not mean you did well. If everyone in the group is a high achieving student, scoring only 10% might be vey good.


And there are so many other reasons not to use standardized tests to assess student, teacher, or school achievement. So, why are the tests still pushed?


Also, this week LACS received good news. The radio interviewer asked me if an alternative school, which de-emphasized tests, grades and competition, could prepare students for the tests and other challenges of the world. I said yes. To support my assertion, the SAT scores for the year were announced this week. LACS outscored all the other schools in upstate New York. (Despite this, I still argue that standardized tests infringe on learning more than they assess it.)


I hope you enjoy the interview. Any questions or comments?



*The mural is by LACS students. The blue ox is the Blue ACS, symbol of the school.