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.