Wednesday, December 07, 2011

La longue durée

morrisberman | La longue durée is an expression used by the Annales School of French historians to indicate an approach that gives priority to long-term historical structures over short-term events. The phrase was coined by Fernand Braudel in an article he published in 1958. Basically, the Annales historians held that the short-term time-scale is the domain of the chronicler and the journalist, whereas la longue durée concentrates on all-but-permanent or slowly evolving structures. Thus beneath the twists and turns of any economic system, wrote Braudel, which can seem like major changes to the people living through them, lie "old attitudes of thought and action, resistant frameworks dying hard, at times against all logic." An important derivative of the Annales research is the work of the World Systems Analysis school, including Immanuel Wallerstein and Christopher Chase-Dunn, which similarly focuses on long-term structures: capitalism, in particular.

The “arc” of capitalism, according to WSA, is about 600 years long, from 1500 to 2100. It is our particular (mis)fortune to be living through the beginning of the end, the disintegration of capitalism as a world system. It was mostly commercial capital in the sixteenth century, evolving into industrial capital in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and then moving on to financial capital—money created by money itself, and by speculation in currency—in the twentieth and twenty-first. In dialectical fashion, it will be the very success of the system that eventually does it in.

The last time a change of this magnitude occurred was during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, during which time the medieval world began to come apart and be replaced by the modern one. In the classic study of the period, The Waning of the Middle Ages, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga depicted the time as one of depression and cultural exhaustion—like our own age, not much fun to live through. One reason for this is that the world is literally perched over an abyss (brilliantly depicted at the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest). What is on deck, so to speak, is largely unknown, and to have to hover over the unknown for a long time is, to put it colloquially, a bit of a drag. The same thing was true at the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire as well (on the ruins of which the feudal system slowly arose).

I was musing on all of this stuff last week when I happened to run across a remarkable essay by Naomi Klein, “Capitalism vs. the Climate” (The Nation, 28 November 2011). In what appears to be something of a radical shift for her, she chastises the Left for not understanding what the Right does correctly perceive: that the whole climate change debate is a serious threat to capitalism. The Left, she says, wants to soft-pedal the implications; it wants to say that environmental protection is compatible with economic growth, that it is not a threat to capital or labor. It wants to get everyone to buy a hybrid car, for example (which I have personally compared to diet cheesecake), or use more efficient light bulbs, or recycle, as if these things were adequate to the crisis at hand. But the Right is not fooled: it sees Green as a Trojan horse for Red, the attempt “to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of eco-socialism.” It believes—correctly—that the politics of global warming is inevitably an attack on the American Dream, on the whole capitalist structure. Thus Larry Bell, in Climate of Corruption, argues that environmental politics is essentially about “transforming the American way of life in the interests of global wealth distribution”; and British blogger James Delinpole notes that “Modern environmentalism successfully advances many of the causes dear to the left: redistribution of wealth, higher taxes, greater government intervention, [and] regulation.”

What Naomi is saying to the Left, in effect, is: Why fight it? These nervous nellies on the Right are—right! Those of us on the Left can’t keep talking about compatibility of limits-to-growth and unrestrained greed, or claiming that climate action is “just one issue on a laundry list of worthy causes vying for progressive attention,” or urging everyone to buy a Prius. Folks like Thomas Friedman or Al Gore, who “assure us that we can avert catastrophe by buying ‘green’ products and creating clever markets in pollution”—corporate green capitalism, in a word—are simply living in denial. “The real solutions to the climate crisis,” she writes, “are also our best hope of building a much more enlightened economic system—one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work, and radically reins in corporate power.”

In one of the essays in A Question of Values (“conspiracy vs. Conspiracy in American History”), I lay out some of the “unconscious programs” buried in the American psyche from our earliest days, programs that account for most of our so-called conscious behavior. These include the notion of an endless frontier—a world without limits—and the ideal of extreme individualism—you do not need, and should not need, anyone’s help to “make it” in the world. Combined, the two of these provide a formula for enormous capitalist power and inevitable capitalist collapse (hence, the dialectical dimension of it all). Of this, Naomi writes:

“The expansionist, extractive mindset, which has so long governed our relationship to nature, is what the climate crisis calls into question so fundamentally. The abundance of scientific research showing we have pushed nature beyond its limits does not just demand green products and market-based solutions; it demands a new civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature but in respect for natural cycles of renewal—and acutely sensitive to natural limits....These are profoundly challenging revelations for all of us raised on Enlightenment ideals of progress.” (This is exactly what I argued in The Reenchantment of the World; nice to see it all coming around again.) “Real climate solutions,” she continues, “are ones that steer [government] interventions to systematically disperse and devolve power and control to the community level, through community-controlled renewable energy, local organic agriculture or transit systems genuinely accountable to their users.” Hence, she concludes, the powers that be have reason to be afraid, and to deny the data on global warming, for what is really required at this point is the end of the free-market ideology. And, I would add, the end of the arc of capitalism referred to above. It’s going to be (is) a colossal fight, not only because the powers that be want to hang on to their power, but because the arc and all its ramifications have given their class Meaning with a capital M for 500+ years. This is what the OWS protesters need to tell the 1%: Your lives are a mistake. This is what “a new civilizational paradigm” finally means.