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Revolutionary Letters

Michael Robbins’s essay on the apocalypse [“Apocalypse Nowish,” Essay, December] is a prime example of climate defeatism, a misguided trend in writing about the environment that privileges pessimism over the political imperative to confront the climate crisis.

Each degree or sub-degree of global warming we prevent will make a significant difference in the number of people who die from climate disasters and food shortages. This will remain true for some years, even if we fail to limit global warming to the much-touted figure of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Robbins writes of a “crisis” that can’t be resolved within the institutions that gave rise to it, but we shouldn’t think about climate catastrophe in such binary terms. We won’t overthrow the political and economic systems that transformed our planet into a self-destructive profit engine overnight—but we must fight for harm reduction as stridently as possible.

Robbins quotes Mike Davis on our society’s apocalypse denialism. Last year, while nearing his own end, Davis also said this: “What keeps us going, ultimately, is our love for each other, and our refusal to bow our heads, to accept the verdict, however all-powerful it seems.” Reflecting on the political struggles of the Sixties, the “miracles” he saw and the “many great fighters” he knew who fought “even if things seem[ed] objectively hopeless,” Davis called on Americans to “organize as massively as possible” and to take up non-violent civil disobedience to disrupt the corporate interests that currently dictate our futures on this planet.

As a climate organizer who engages in non-violent civil disobedience, I refuse to wallow in fatalism when we still have time to realize a more beautiful and livable world. December’s cover provocatively asked: “Should we be rooting for the apocalypse?” Sometimes the right answer is the most obvious one: No, we should not. We should be refusing to accept the verdict. Who knows? We might even get some of it overturned.

Alice Hu
Brooklyn, N.Y.

 

In his essay, Robbins kindly mentions my account of Diane di Prima’s poem “Revolutionary Letter #7.” Much of di Prima’s work combines leftist ideas with elements of Buddhism, witchcraft, and syncretic mythology, and “Revolutionary Letter #7” is no different. Insurrection, she writes, needs Molotov cocktails, bombs, and guns, but ultimately,

what will win
is mantras, the sustenance we give each other,
the energy we plug into
(the fact that we touch
share food)
the buddha nature
of everyone, friend and foe, like a million earthworms
tunnelling under this structure
till it falls

As Robbins says, radical movements have a long history of association with religion both organized and unorthodox. Something important is lost from “Revolutionary Letter #7” if we sidestep its spiritual dimensions; di Prima sings of arms and mantras—why?

I ask this question as a literary critic. We won’t get very far with twentieth- century poetry if we’re embarrassed by its metaphysics. It’s easy to roll our eyes at the high-church histrionics of an anti-Semite like T. S. Eliot, less prudent to write off someone as deeply committed to the revolution as di Prima, who for years taught the course The Hidden Religions in the Literature of Europe, with John Dee, Aleister Crowley, and “The Exaltation of Inanna,” a Sumerian hymn from the third century bc, on her syllabus.

Anahid Nersessian
Professor of English, University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles

 

 

Common Ground

Alan Jacobs’s discussion of anarchism [“Between Chaos and the Man,” Review, December] includes the claim that central figures in anarchist thought have promulgated a belief in essential goodness. In fact, nineteenth- century anarchists were deeply suspicious of arguments about human nature. For Proudhon, and those who followed, Hobbes’s “war of all against all” and Rousseau’s tale of the corruption of the “noble savage” had only one end: the necessity of government, authority, and law. Doubting the reliability of the models dreamt up by philosophers, anarchists studied real human behaviors in different settings.

In his piece, Jacobs writes that Kropotkin believed anarchism depended on cooperation, contrasting this with competition. Mutual Aid was directed at Social Darwinists who read nature as “red in tooth and claw” to promote laissez-faire capitalism, racism, and belligerent rivalry. In reply, Kropotkin wrote about the evolution of moral and political systems. Cooperation referred to the propensity of humans to associate to enhance their chances of survival.

Jacobs wonders whether “a society built on the assumption of voluntary, emergent mutual aid is a pipe dream.” Kropotkin tells us that mutual aid flourishes where egalitarianism and self-government prevail, but that it can be found in even the most repressive conditions. He offers the example of the Lifeboat Association, a decentralized, volunteer-run organization whose members habitually risked their lives to help others in peril at sea. Its operation refuted the argument that the state is essential for the provision of public services.

Jacobs admits that he once considered anarchism irrelevant but now sees it as a critical lens to reflect on responsibility, domination, and choice. It also taps into everyday practices and ethics of care. The COVID-19 pandemic sparked the creation of many mutual aid groups. Some of those involved were anarchists, but not all. Most probably didn’t stop to ask themselves what being an anarchist entailed.

Ruth Kinna
Professor of Political Theory
Loughborough University
Loughborough, England

 

It’s in line with anarchist thinking that Jacobs’s essay relies more on questions than on answers. His grappling with internal resistances and earnest desires is a core aspect of anarchist practice.

Indeed, Jacobs’s motivating question, How do I become an anarchist?, reflects an anxiety often discussed within the movement. The mistrust of paper membership and centralized party models, as well as the enactment of a stringent security culture—measures proven necessary—could alienate potential converts. After decades of anarchist resurgence, we still have not figured out how to make anarchist spaces feel more accessible. But the inability to solve this problem reflects a strength of anarchism: that it is not interested in making converts or building uniformity, that it does not ask everyone to agree or be the same to fight together.

As Jacobs acknowledges, anarchism is a living practice more than an ideology; its contours are not shaped by devotion to any particular texts or thinkers. These days, you’re far more likely to find anarchists studying the black radical tradition than Proudhon, Bookchin, or Bakunin. In my life, anarchism thrives in the streets and the crèches, the mutual aid centers and the infoshops, the conferences and the raves more than in libraries, lecture halls, or meeting rooms.

This brings me to my main disagreement with Jacobs: I am fundamentally opposed to his belief in an undeniably selfish human nature. I believe that anything human beings are capable of expressing is a part of human nature, but we live under systems—capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy—that dramatically enliven some attitudes while violently repressing others. In the struggle against these forces we also challenge the contention that humans are unchangeably selfish; and as we fight, we may discover a possibility for transformation hostile to Christian notions of original sin or occidental claims of immutable human nature. I know that I have. As many of us in the movement like to say, “The only thing to do is to start.”

Vicky Osterweil
Philadelphia

 

Capital Hill

Sarah Smarsh delivers a necessary essay on how a low-income background can influence and imperil a congressional candidacy [“In the Running,” Essay, November]. And yet, despite her working-class origins, her lengthy rumination about a possible run for a Kansas Senate seat barely touches on corporate power, corporate coercion, or corporate control—in short, the corporate state of Wall Street over Washington. It is all too typical these days for liberal writing about politics to focus on racism, sexism, and sometimes class without starting and concluding with the most dominant force that breeds these structural injustices: giant, omnipresent corporatism. This absence speaks volumes about the avoidance that winds its way through the Democratic Party as it fumbles one election after another against the most corrupt Republican Party in history.

As I argue in my book Breaking Through Power, politics is about power, which means we must focus on the concentration of corporate power and greed setting the conditions and limitations of living in the United States.

Ralph Nader
Washington, D.C.