I wrote a critical account of a group of people who command the attention of the non-corporate left; Noam Chomsky, David Graeber, Media Lens, Ran Prieur, Caitlin Johnstone, Mark Fisher and Dark Mountain. I sent a copy to all of them, nine people, and asked them to comment (also to Zerzan, mentioned positively several times1). I didn’t get any replies from Alastair McIntosh, Dougald Hine or Caitlin Johnstone. The others sent mails or tweets.
David Edwards wrote to me to tell me that I was criticising them because I had praised them in the past (to be fair I am annoyed by how long it took me to see how submissive they are) and had to get revenge (but that’s nonsense), that he doesn’t see himself as a socialist or ‘any kind of ‘ist’ (which, as I explained, is common among unofficial socialists who are embarrassed to be described with the most fitting term for their political attitude) and that he doesn’t say what he really feels because it wouldn’t be ‘effective’ (see below). A little later he tweeted his support and wrote that I was:
‘…stepping where others fear to tread, but doing so with huge fun, sincerity and delight. It was like a flare exploding in the night exposing Dissident Royalty’s pompous self-regard and waffle-ridden spiritual clicksturbation. That has to be supported.’
He didn’t actually respond to anything I wrote about him and David Cromwell though. Just kind of agreed here and there, and then ignored it. ‘Has to be supported’, but not for very long.
Turning to David Graeber.
Speaks for itself really. After a sly dig at my lack of importance, followed by the teensy straw-man that I think 99.9% of the world should die, followed by a surreal reference to my ‘white buddies’ he went on, in his next tweet, to say that everyone in the group he belongs to (‘anarchists’ he calls them) is laughing at people like me. Great stuff.2
I actually had read it, at least enough to have an opinion. Purposely evasive. If you’d like a response on something specific, could try.
Bit cryptic. I didn’t pursue it though, as I’ve already had two gigantic email exchanges with him. What I wrote in the article that was based on those emails was no more evasive — purposefully or otherwise — than in the emails themselves, which Chomsky would not let me publish here. It is Chomsky, like Graeber, like any of the people I critiqued, who cannot face these kind of criticisms — i.e. from further left (or rather, from outside the political spectrum) which is why they ignore, ridicule and rhetorically sidestep them in precisely the same way that the right does with their criticisms.
Jonathan Cook, mentioned obliquely in the piece, wrote to me and said that he liked what I had written (not quite enough to share with his followers, but nevermind). He said that I am ‘only interested in Anarchism in the future’, that I did not provide any solutions and that I needed to be clearer about what I want from ‘unofficials’ because otherwise — bowing to the great Democratic God of the hopeful socialist — I wouldn’t be ‘effective’. I replied that I have provided solutions elsewhere in my work; plenty of them, that I am demonstrably not interested (or not principally interested) in ‘anarchism in the future’ (where it will inevitably happen anyway) or in being ‘effective’ and that criticism clearly comes with it’s own recommendations (‘You eat too much ice-cream’ = ‘don’t eat so much ice-cream.’ ‘Your views are basically socialist’ = ‘Give up these views.’). Cook didn’t pursue the matter.
Ran ‘I’ve always liked Joe Biden’ Prieur wrote this:
When I was young, I was a warrior. I wanted to slay dragons. At around age 40, I shifted into being a scout. Now I want to figure things out. Specifically, I want to ask the most important questions, come up with original answers, and write them with extreme concision. Looking back, my essays were often dishonest. I would start with a beautiful and simple story, and then go looking for stuff to back it up, and ignore stuff that didn’t fit. It’s a good way to get an audience, but it’s short-sighted. At the peak of my popularity, I noticed that my following was becoming cult-like. Some readers would put an idealized image of me in their heads, and then would get mad at me personally for not fitting that image. When I understood this, I consciously shifted from trying to be inspiring, to trying not to be inspiring. (The exception is my fiction, which no one has unpacked yet.)
In the real world he doesn’t come up with original answers, his essays in the past weren’t dishonest (although they could be wrong, but that’s another matter) and he didn’t consciously shift from being inspiring to trying to not be inspiring; if it had been conscious he would be coming up with conscious (and therefore original) answers. You would also still have the feeling that a conscious person was writing them, rather than a facsimile. Reading early Ran’s stuff you can almost hear a wild, alive, elven prince laughing, laughing, laughing at the mad beauty of life… Reading his later stuff is like reading a museum brochure.
(31.07.19 edit: Paul Kingsnorth’s Questionable Ability to Say Something)
I had a truly extraordinary exchange of mails with Paul Kingsnorth which I summarised, publishing extracts here. Kingsnorth wrote to me outraged that I had shared ‘private correspondence’. In fact, he was right, I should have asked him — I really just forgot — so I apologised to him and removed it. What I will say is that Kingsnorth wrote six emails to me, about a thousand words, in which he did almost nothing but insult me. Lots of name-calling and attempts at point-scoring, some quite stunningly childish, and about eight examples of the cheerless ironic mockery that so many professional writers take for witty argument; all the time criticising me for being twisted with bitterness3 and scorn; over and over and over again. When I pointed this out to him — that he was incapable of intelligently responding, of actually saying something… he agreed with me! He said — he said — that his response was ‘without content or argument’. He even said that the rest of his work was meaningless! I kid you not. He said that his next book (feted by the the eco-left of course) is ‘painfully bourgeois… self-indulgent… and about the meaninglessness of most of [his] words.’ Again, these were his words.4 Truly amazing stuff and, I have to say, as he got more and more angry with me for doing nothing but quote his words back at him, funny.
I also had a few responses from other people. Lots of positive stuff along with a fair few criticisms. These latter fell into three groups. One was that I am just as abusive, nasty, bitter, snarky, jealous and angry as (for example) Graeber. The next was that I don’t understand Chomsky, Fisher, Kingsnorth, etc., and the third — as I predicted in the article — was that I am practicing ‘purity politics’ rejecting these thinkers because they don’t fit with my narrow understanding of the truth (or definition of anarchism). I’ll let the article (indeed my work generally) answer for itself. You can see for yourself how ‘nasty’ or ‘abusive’ I am (although I’m certainly not averse to mockery, or even outright scorn), how well I understand Chomsky and company and what I have to say about the charge of sectarianism (which I address at several points). The point is these criticisms are just ways of scoring points. They’re not substantive. There is no meaningful content to them, and so no meaningful response can be given.
(28.09.19 edit: Media Lens, Jonathan Cook and the New Green Movement)
I had another brief discussion with Jonathan Cook and Media Lens on Twitter about the Thunberg-XR-New-Green movement mentioned in the article. Cook sneered at my suggestion that reform, protest, voting and other forms of polite socialism are pointless, then caricatured my position as defeatism and an absurd call to the tribal trees, then chose not to grasp the meaning of a very simple analogy (between a dying civilisation and a dying person5), then admitted that the solutions he is endorsing are useless and said that the reason why he doesn’t publicly state this is because the people are not ready to hear the truth, then confessed that he did not have the expertise or authority to write meaningfully about this truth (he did, he said that) and finished by saying that my critique of his position was motivated by — and my failure to amass more readers caused by — rage, anger, spite, childishness and a desire to spread… terror! And the reason for all these twisted emotions? I am lonely!
All this speaks for itself. I happen to think that Cook is a bland if reasonably good socialist journo,6 who writes some good stuff on Israel and on the hypocrisy of official socialists. I also think he is probably a pretty decent and ‘well-intentioned’ fellow. As usual though, scratch beneath that and you get this kind of thing.
Cook was also contemptuous of my alleged attempts to ‘save’ people as, once again, ‘ineffective’. Socialists and democrats of course, just like the ‘populists’ they set up as baddies, are very interested in ‘effectiveness’ — they have to be, because if you can’t get 51% of the world on your side, then you’ve lost. Closer to home, you need substantial agreement to sell books. Not caring particularly about other people’s attitudes is madness to the reformer; certainly to Cook who continually harps on ‘reaching’ and ‘persuading’ people, ‘opening their eyes’ and ‘getting them to see’ this and that.7 Of course a writer of non-fiction should be as clear and persuasive as possible — but if he cares more about having even one approving reader than in speaking the truth, his work is junk.
In the fantasy-land inhabited by socialists, official and unofficial, it is essential to change people’s minds, ‘raise their consciousness’ and ‘open their eyes’. In the real world it is impossible to change people’s fundamental outlook. Ever tried to change someone’s sense of humour? Taste in music? Belief in God? Basic attitude to the world or to their fellows? Everyone knows this is impossible. Debate only works on a surface, verbal level, regarding the most trivial matters. Only life can actually change man’s mind,8 which is why he expends such energy in shielding himself from it: which, in actual fact, is the purpose of civilisation, and the reason why civilisation won’t change by ‘raising popular awareness’. Of course people who entirely inhabit a realm of abstractions and surface emotions, which can be changed, giving to them the impression that argument can get somewhere, can’t see the truth of this.
You might ask, ‘What’s the point of arguing then?’ In most cases none, but the reason I argue with people is not to change their minds, it’s to show other people their minds. And I enjoy it. I like a bit of a scrap. Nothing wrong with that — unless you’re a middle-class pacifist or someone who can’t step back from the game. Or you might ask, as Media Lens did, ‘What’s the point of speaking at all then?’ If it’s not clear to anyone who reads my work — as Edwards has done — why I write then either they’ve missed the point or I’ve failed to get it across. I’m going here for the former.
‘Why on earth do you bother tell[ing] people it’s all hopeless? Why comment at all?’ Edwards asked. I said (three times) that I didn’t think there was nothing that could be done, rather that the Thunberg-XR-climate-strike movement could not, as it is, possibly succeed. They have no meaningful analysis of the problem, have proposed no solutions that can possibly work and are taking no effective action. Media Lens then said ‘nothing is that certain’. They said that ‘giving up hope’ as I seemed to be doing9 would be like not doing everything you can to rescue children in a burning building or — brace yourself, this is a peculiar one — exploding nuclear bombs in the atmosphere in the hope of cooling the world and allowing us to ‘survive a few decades’.
Yes, they were seriously asking me to consider going on the recommendation of — of all people — technocratic experts in order to fill the skies with radiation in order to drag this horrendous worldly existence out for a couple more decades. Strange kind of hope. You have to wonder what other horrifying projects they would be willing to accept if experts convinced them that it could ‘spare billions of lives even for a few decades’ (sep 2020 edit: we certainly got an answer to that one!). They followed this up with ‘One year ago, the idea that 1,500,000 people would be protesting in Germany alone would have sounded like totally deranged fantasy. It’s a huge number. What next? Who knows?’ I pointed out, as I have done many times, that in order to deal with this problem — which is not a single-issue technical matter, like stopping a war, but is civilisation itself — we would have to immediately do away with all long-haul transport, all petrochemical products, total reliance on massive quanta of energy, the internet, smartphones — indeed all industrial technology; the economy of the entire system would also have to be rolled back a thousand years and not just all the stupendous inequality, but all the organs of iniquity, would have to be dissolved in a decade. Are any of these one and a half million Germans asking for this, or doing anything meaningful about it? What about Guardian journalists, and all the other media outlets enthusiastically promoting Thunberg and company? No, it isn’t even an option, and, as I said to Media Lens, ‘going on the history of all civilisations, isn’t going to be one until far, far, far too late.’
The history of civilisations isn’t relevant to prominent voices in the great green revolution, nor is the nature of this one, which is why they have ‘hope’. It is only possible to believe that we are going to to turn this round by having no real understanding of the problem, of how deep it runs into the unworld and into the human unnature which created and is created by it. Nobody in this climate movement, at least at the moment, is interested in what civilisation / the system really is, in really critically investigating this life-eating machine we have been building for ten-millennia.10 If they were, they would be behaving quite differently.
Media Lens asked me how I can ‘be so certain about [the] potential’ of all these climate protestors. It’s not so different to asking how I can be so certain that a stadium of football fans can’t transform into a fertility cult. Of course the prospect that millions of civilised people will suddenly stop ‘making demands of government’, give up the illusion of socialism and democracy, give up civilisation, and set about actually building robust medieval-level communities is a bit more likely than Old Trafford turning out naked and bedecked in peonies, but within a few years? Only an outrageous ignorance of domesticated human-nature could possibly hold out hope for such a mythic transformation.
The most extreme solutions only comes from the most extreme problems, and the problem, for just about everyone on earth, is nowhere near extreme enough; meaning it doesn’t reach anything like deep enough into the domesticated individual. When the world starts actually collapsing, and the wi-fi lights go black, and everyone everywhere is starving, and insanity and violence are in all directions — as they soon will be — then people will consider real change. Then they will be prepared to face death; and that will be all to the good — the kingdom of death, and the individual’s conscious embrace of it, is untouched by anything that happens on earth — but it will be far too late for our little human world.
Dark clouds are certainly gathering, but the technocratic civilised bubble that muffles men and women from reality still exists, which is why ridiculous dreams of a ‘green revolution’ and ‘carbon offsetting’ persist, why Cook looks forward to a day when Thunberg ‘gets party political’ and Media Lens nurture hope for a ‘Green Labour policy’. Nevermind that it will take centuries to change our energy systems over; meaning the entire infrastructure of energy generation, transmission and delivery. Nevermind the monolithic barriers facing an actually effective reform to the global debt-economy can only be overturned by an unimaginably vast jubilee. Nevermind that we are already ‘locked-in’ to a short term disaster of unspeakable proportions. Nevermind China and India. Nevermind the domesticated mind of the mass, and what it would actually mean to threaten it. Nevermind all that — and much more — because it is tactically unsound, and therefore immoral, to question ‘hope’.
The above discussion began with Jonathan Cook’s article addressing criticism of Greta Thunberg. The entire article is, essentially, a strawman (a word Cook is very fond of), or semi-strawman, in that it is directed at largely irrelevant criticisms. It certainly is suspicious as hell that the world’s media — along with people like Richard Branson — have, all at once, decided that they care about the earth now and that this girl is the heroine of the hour to one and all, but Media Lens and Cook’s notion that it is because journalists ‘are people too’ and also worried about the coming collapse, is — despite being questionable — besides the point. It’s besides the point that, as Cook points out, Martin Luther King was also lauded by the liberal press11. And it’s certainly besides the point that we’re in a slightly better position with millions on the street than we would be without them. The entire point is… what are the proposed solutions?12 What are the climate protestors actually saying we should do? Dismantle states is it — or demand things from them? Create a world in which democracy is unnecessary — or faff around with toothless citizen’s assemblies? De-tech the world completely — or float risible corp-friendly bromides like net-zero, replanting forests and bio-energy?
Imagine XR began criticising not just ‘capitalism’ but the entire technocratic system. Imagine Thunberg asked the world to listen to John Zerzan, John Michael Greer or Ivan Illich. Imagine the [amazingly well-behaved] climate-striking millions began striking every day, stopped paying any tax or rent, de-enclosed common land and began actually dismantling the system. Imagine, in short, the analysis and the solutions were accurate and effective. Of course this is quite impossible — the comfortable middle-classes and hipsters who make up most of XR can’t possibly see the problem or make meaningful moves to solve it, but if they did how do you think The Guardian, the New York Time and Das Spiegel would react? How, indeed, would Media Lens and Jonathan Cook react? If they would welcome such moves, why don’t they promote them? Why don’t they make any kind of meaningful distinction between the kind of piecemeal, reformist, socialist-democratic solutions promoted by the new wealthy white green movement — ultimately useless and entirely consonant with the aims and values of the wealthy corporate press — and an anarchist response, which might actually work, but which will, quite obviously, never, ever, get serious mainstream attention?
Media Lens say that criticising Thunberg and co ‘colours the protests’, that it demeans millions of people who, for example, might impact ‘Labour policy commitments’ to… what exactly? What are Labour going to actually do? What is any government going to actually do? No answer. Nothing. Not because no definable plan can be given — the reason that anarchists tend not to lay out programmes of reform — but because nothing can be done. After Cook brushed away his invented problem of how I was ‘going to persuade everyone to move from modern society to hunter-gatherer societies.’ I asked him, in return, if he could ‘explain how we’re going to turn the clock back 800 years on the global economy in a decade? By voting in the goodies?’ With green energy?’ Again, no answer. Nobody gives answers to such questions and objections, at least none that don’t rely on risible fairy-tales, because there are none.
Media Lens and Cook ask us to enthusiastically support Thunberg, XR and the new green movement because they ‘offer hope’ for a solution which cannot possibly work. What’s more, if they did start offering hope for a solution which might work — which neither Media Lens nor Jonathan Cook appear to have any interest in — then, putting aside the fact that it will already be too late — as, in fact, it already is — then ‘they’ will be completely different people, with completely different values and perceptions to those currently protesting. Thus there can be no possible problem in criticising the former — indeed doing so is more likely to give birth to the latter.
(12.08.20 edit: Caitlin Johnstone Responds)
She did. She wrote on Twitter:
…it completely misrepresents my position. I’m not going to respond to some stranger’s fictional story about a fictional Caitlin he made up in his imagination.
She said that she was
…the world’s foremost authority on what Caitlin Johnstone’s positions are, so when I say someone is misrepresenting my positions and you disagree, I am right and you are wrong.
Some Twitter-bod called ‘Oh Geez’ then responded to this with, ‘impeccable logic. Because of course human beings never lack self awareness.’ Which I couldn’t have put better, although actually my critique of Caitlin like my tweets to her contained a large number of direct quotes; because I do agree with her. She really does know what her opinions are, and is quite open about them. As with many public minds, a decent and pretty devastating critique can be made just by quoting her.
(10.08.20 edit. Covid-19)
I wrote an account, now here, by way of coda to this long investigation of the limits of system thinking, on the reaction of the left to lockdown, including a to-and-fro with Caitlin Johnstone and, surprisingly, John Zerzan, who turned out to be quite happy to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the above voices.
Read the original article — an anarchist critique of ‘unofficial socialists’ (such as Noam Chomsky, David Graeber and Mark Fisher) here.
See also the latter chapters of 33 Myths of the System for more critique of the reformist left and its systemic priorities.
- Zerzan said the piece was ‘important work’. Thanks John. Big fan of Zerzan of course, although as I’ve mentioned elsewhere I disagree with him quite deeply on matters of gender.
- Edit: A year later he seems to have read the piece again, commenting on twitter that I ‘actually think [he] is saying that people were never free. Wow. Talk about missing the point. The basic theme… is about how people lost their fundamental freedoms.’ He blocked me after posting that, so I couldn’t reply but, as I make quite clear, Graeber’s ‘freedom’ is civilised, technocratic and socialist; it is not free.
- I’ve heard this one a few times. I’m ‘bitter’, a lonely unsuccessful writer, twisted up with, of all things, thwarted ambition.
- Hear Zerzan’s perceptive assessment here and (Sep 2019 edit) here — starts 10:38.
- Various other analogies in the same thread and elsewhere posed no problem for him.
- Which, given that journalism is about as low as you can get as a productive activity, isn’t saying much, but nevermind.
- In private correspondence to me, and elsewhere.
- Teachings can, of course, revolutionise people’s lives, but only when they are ready, when the truth of the teaching already exists within them, ready to be birthed.
- Actually I have no interest in ‘hope’ — by and large a repulsive, fictive emotion, well represented I think by the Spanish word for it, ‘have illusion’ — and certainly not in mass solutions, but anyway…
- Most of their critical ire is directed towards ‘capitalism’ — the most prominent modern manifestation of the system — and ‘the elites’ — the baddies.
- When, in actual fact, he was excoriated as soon as he made the tiniest move towards real change. In the liberal press today King ceases to exist after his ‘I have a dream’ speech.
- Cook at one point, in criticising the admittedly questionable decision of OffGuardian — a fine website — to post articles doubting Anthropogenic Global Warming, made a link between OffGuardian ‘caring so much about solutions’ and ‘thinking that scientists are wrong about climate collapse’ (which they demonstrably do not). Does he really think there is a connection? Hard to believe.