Sasha Lilley’s dishonest argument on catastrophes
Interesting essay by Sasha Lilley: “Apocalypse Now?” Lilley is convinced, “The left has a long history of catastrophism—expecting collapse to lead to social transformation.” She doesn’t approved of this alleged love affair on the Left with the apocalypse and so she wrote a book to express her disapproval.
I want to say one thing about Lilley’s basic dishonesty: while I was reading von Mises’ book Socialism yesterday, it was clear to my that that idiot began his critique by attempting to decontextualize Marx from capitalism by comparing Marx’s theory to biblical prophecies. This is not an unusual approach by the critics of Marx — Schumpeter did it as well. Marx is the prophet and his followers are religious zealots of the new Kingdom of God. Surprisingly, Lilley tries to pull the same stupid shit in her critique of the inevitable collapse of capitalism.
A new beginning emerging from a fiery end has been predicted countless times before. In 1844, the followers of American Baptist preacher William Miller sold their possessions in anticipation of the return of Christ. What did not, in fact, follow is known as The Great Disappointment. It is unlikely that the aftermath of the 2012 apocalypse will leave such a mark. Who remembers now the rapture predicted on May 21st of last year? Or the follow-up, “corrected” date of October 21st?
In a recent interview as well as in this essay, Lilley equates the inevitable demise of capitalism with “peak oil”, the Mayan calendar, religious inspired prophecies of the end of time, etc. She even tries to tie the inevitable demise of capitalism based on labor theory of value with the odious Malthus’ theory of overpopulation.
However, although she is very dishonest in her argument, she does raise several important questions. I think her complete dishonesty does not in any way detract from the question her essay, interview and book raises.
For one thing she notes catastrophes don’t turn out the way the Left usually imagines them. Lilley argues catastrophes tend to favor the Right more than the Left, so banking on them as a shortcut is at best questionable.
The idea of a cleansing catastrophe flows naturally from reactionary politics. The right thrives on fear. And it has a simple solution for the alarmist scenarios that it is constantly invoking: scapegoat the “enemy”—whether immigrants or other easily targeted populations—and demand authoritarian fixes. These do not work for the left (nor should they). Fear tilts right. Leftists enter into fear mongering at their peril.
I think Lilley is at least partially correct on this, but I think she emphasizes fear far too much. To see the logic of her underlying argument we need look no further than the Great Depression and World War II: The Left was really quite convinced that collapse was coming and it would lead to a proletarian revolution. Well, the collapse did come — but it brought Auschwitz in its wake, along with 80 million more dead in the world war that followed, plus the destruction of the productive capacity of Eurasia.
Not exactly how we all imagined the catastrophe would turn out, huh? But — and this is the fucking point — the catastrophe happened, just as labor theory of value predicted. And this part of the story never appears in Lilley’s argument for some reason. Lilley argues as though the “catastrophists” like Grossman spent their time reading Nostradamus, not Karl Marx when they made their predictions of a catastrophic breakdown of capitalism.
Moreover, the argument that catastrophes favor the Right looks pretty good until you realize the whole of human experience with economic catastrophes only dates to the 19th century. Even if the whole of the empirical evidence supported Lilley’s argument, that evidence is only a very thin slice of human history. Moreover, on the basis of the evidence we can only conclude people try to recreate their previous mode of existence and do so to whatever extent this is possible.
Since following any sort of crisis people set out first to restore their former conditions of existence, the Right, who promise this sort of thing, have an advantage. They pomise a return to some former state when everything was just peachy keen — like the fifties. You lose your job in the biggest crisis in decades, and Obama promises to give you another, while the Left promises to end wage slavery. But you only want a job. So fuck the Left and their silly promises.
I conclude from this that so long as Obama can keep promising jobs, the Left is not really going to get a hearing. So what? Did Lilley expect some other result?
As Lilley notes, the “stargate” did not open on the day of the predicted Mayan apocalypse, and nuclear power plants didn’t meltdown as a result of the Y2K bug — but the economic catastrophe, which many on the Left predicted, did happen. So are we just supposed to ignore the fact that, in fact, as Marx predicted, shit does happen in the capitalist mode of production?
For 40 years, the Austrians have been predicting the bond vigilantes are going to take Washington to task — it hasn’t happened and nothing indicates it is going to happen in the near future despite trillion dollar deficits. For 60 years, Keynesian economists have been predicting the problem of crisis has been solved by the fascist state — it hasn’t happened and this crisis saw Keynesian policies completely fail for the first time. By contrast Marx’s labor theory predicts crises of ever increasing intensity — and it has just kept happening as predicted for 150 years now.
So Ms. Lilley, I predict one day you and the “anti-catastrophist” (i.e., reformist) Left will just shut the fuck up and start listening. Unfortunately, that too will never happen.