Hope Against Hope: Writings on Ecological Crisis is the first book from Out of the Woods, a transnational political research and theory collective whose approach to the twinned nightmares of capitalism and climate change rejects both “romantic naturalism” and “pragmatic green capitalism.” Instead, Out of the Woods seek a revolutionary alternative that begins from the working-class social movements of our time. In the face of what seems like insurmountable despair, they insist that “we must not forget our existing relations with others. Amongst the working class, the racialized, the gendered, the colonized, disaster is met with self-organization, solidarity, and care.” In this interview with Common Notions editor Andy Battle, Out of the Woods outline their perspectives on disease, capitalism, technology, eco-fascism, and the radical alternative they dub “disaster communism.”
Hope Against Hope is available now with a 25% pre-order discount from Common Notions.
Andy Battle: The ongoing pandemic has produced a kind of ad hoc experiment in degrowth, albeit one that is rooted less in any left political initiative than in the contradictions of capitalism themselves. What are we to make of this politically?
Out of the Woods: First off, we must point out that COVID-19 emerges not as a shock from “outside” capital, but rather one that is produced by capitalist ecological contradictions themselves. This argument has been most powerfully made by Marxist epidemiologist Rob Wallace and colleagues (see here, here, and here) and elaborated brilliantly by Chuang. Though details of the novel coronavirus’s emergence are still being debated, it seems clear that capitalist agricultural pressures are central to the relationships that precipitate zoonotic diseases. These might include deforestation, concentrated animal feed lots, and the class dynamics which have led to status-seeking through rare animal consumption. Following the chains of capitalist ecological contradictions is crucial to understanding, diagnosing, and addressing the root causes of the virus’s emergence.
To your question: a banal but clear takeaway from the social effects of the planetary spread of the virus is that at an aggregate level, ecological destruction is closely tied to economic growth. The pandemic is not, however, realizing a transition to a less ecologically destructive world. It merely represents a pause in global production (and in many ecologically destructive industries, such as construction, the pause has been minimal). Of course, ecologically destructive growth also relies on exploitative labor practices and appropriations of land, livelihoods, culture, and knowledges to produce surplus. So when vast swaths of labor are compelled to not produce (for capital), some aspects of that destruction will not take place. Thankfully, the bullshit interpretation of this situation—that“nature is healing”—was quickly shut down (and turned into a meme). More on that below.
The less amusing side of the coin is that this “unmanaged” contraction scenario entails all kinds of new and different forms of ecological destruction. As advocates of a just degrowth transition point out, this “sudden, un-planned, and chaotic downscaling of social and economic activity due to covid-19” is not “degrowth” in any meaningful sense. To reiterate: despite emissions reductions, this kind of emergency brake is in no way uniformly ecologically benign. Moreover, this five-percent emissions reduction is nowhere close to the seven to eight percent reduction we need to see every year.
So, the effects on the natural world from the COVID-19 induced economic slowdown—much like those on social formations—are unevenly distributed and socially mediated. The oil and meat industries in the United States are cases in point. Though demand for oil is almost catastrophically low (from an industry standpoint), the result is not necessarily less oil being extracted, refined, and burned. It can also mean more orphaned wells, less adherence to basic environmental regulations (many of which the Trump Administration has also put on pause), more bankruptcies and thus fewer bond payments for environmental remediation, and so on. Low oil prices are also hammering parts of the Global South, where they account for significant portions of state revenue, which mediates important aspects of social existence.
Similarly, with meat production, we are seeing slaughterhouses and packing plants be forced to kill off and dispose of animal bodies that they cannot turn into edible meat (due to market oversupply, labor shortages, and supply chain disruption). This mass euthanasia conducted by already-destructive concentrated animal production facilities will likely affect air, water, and workers (most of whom are immigrants and/or people of color, though this too is uneven as plants try to reinforce and exacerbate divisions within the labor force). This is, of course, at the same time that more and more poor people experience food insecurity. The situation is a clear example of the political-ecological origins of hunger in maldistribution and the lack of entitlements produced by capitalism, which we discuss in several sections of Hope Against Hope. Furthermore, along with prisons, it is in meatpacking plants that many of the most concentrated outbreaks in the United States have emerged. We should not take these spaces to be entirely unrelated, given both have connections to the ongoing production of a (neo)plantation mode of social organization.
The broader point is this: capital’s approach to auguring the response to any ecological breakdown will be to reinforce and deepen the partitions built through race, class, and coloniality. To the extent that we cannot channel the contradictions into just transformations, they will be displaced. Anyone interested in building a more ecologically stable and just communism should prepare with this in mind.
AB: Your approach to climate politics emphasizes what you call “disaster communism.” Can you unpack that phrase? What does each term signify? And what do they mean when you put them together? How does this perspective differ from other approaches to the ecological crisis?
OOTW: We might first draw some contrasts. Disaster communism is not a position that celebrates or creates disaster as a way of hastening communism. It is neither an inversion of disaster capitalism nor a (neo)primitivism. We do not think there is anything inevitable about disaster leading to communism, nor even making it more likely; we are, in any case, opposed to such a separation of means and ends.
In its simplest sense, disaster communism is a communism of and against disaster. In understanding disaster, we draw upon an analytical tradition that insists on the social origins of disasters. Disasters have pernicious and debilitating effects because of social failings. Under capitalism, they tend to entrench inequalities because those social failings are themselves unequal.
With a particular focus on ecological politics, we have developed this position in a few ways. Firstly, we try to drill down into precisely what these inequalities are and the ways that they intersect. Secondly, we argue that the state’s immediate and long-term responses to disastrous events often intensify these inequalities, and indeed are often designed to. Thirdly, we push this position to its logical conclusion: that disaster is a broader category which encompasses the interaction between disastrous events (a hurricane, a flood) and the disastrous lifeworlds of colonial and racial capitalism. We thus distinguish between but stress the co-dependency of disastrous conditions (or disaster-as-structure) and disastrous events. Ecological crisis is precisely such an imbrication: an ongoing condition which produces and is reproduced by specific climactic events.
We know, however, that disastrous social forms have always been met with resistance and organisation. In the midst of disastrous events we find the most incredible examples of mutual aid, solidarity and care: some explicitly and radically political, some less so. Rebecca Solnit calls these “disaster communities.” We’re in awe of them, but wary too. Wary because “community” can easily be a conservative and insular form that bears the risks and costs of social reproduction on behalf of capital in the absence of state provision. So we use “communism” to name two things. First, it refers to the relationships that these communities realize in the face of disastrous events, which prefigure communist society in that private property and the commodity form are put to one side in favour of survival, realizing in the here and now the principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” Secondly, the term refers to the need to abolish the disaster-as-structure which prevents the flourishing of these relationships. In this second sense, communism is, as Marx and Engels wrote, “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”
This second aspect of communism, which points towards the totality of social relations and not just isolated pockets of space and time, is clearly a huge ask. So, disaster communism is both realistic and utopian. Realistic because it takes a look at the world around us and says that if there is to be an equality of survival and flourishing in the face of ecological crisis, abolition is absolutely necessary. Utopian because of the sheer audacity of this project, which does away with borders, prisons, militaries, capital, colonialism, race and gender as hierarchical forces structuring society, and the state.
Here, disaster communism butts up against approaches to ecological crisis which are “realistic” in a different sense: the latter have more chance of being realised on a large scale in the short to medium term, but would abolish few of the structures that result in the uneven distribution of disaster, even though they may lessen the frequency or intensity of disasters. Though we are utopian, we are also capable of being pragmatic, and in various and differing ways our members might provide critical support to social democratic approaches, which tend towards a focus on jobs and growth on a national level (the Green New Deal); to socialist approaches, which tend to focus on seizing the state to repurpose it more drastically (what Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright call “Climate Maoism”); and to scientific approaches, which focus on the development of new technologies, often with funding from appalling sources. And of course we also think it’s important to work with, and perhaps win over, some advocates of “local” or “slow” responses to ecological crisis, too. In Hope Against Hope, we grapple, not always successfully, with a contradiction that many communists feel: on the one hand, the desire to immediately create more favorable conditions for general survival and flourishing; on the other, the necessity of hanging on to the thesis of abolition at the level of the totality, all the while avoiding the pitfalls of a teleological approach to these questions.
So in addition to distinguishing disaster communism from other approaches, we face the challenge of relating to existing politics. Can it work with them by sometimes working against them? What alliances might it form, and how will they function? One of the essays in Hope Against Hope, “Après moi, le deluge,” argues that halting climate change would require a larger write-off of capital than did the abolition of slavery in the US. Nonetheless, we suggest that the abolitionist movement might provide a useful way for thinking about change at the scale necessary to confront the present crisis. That movement was riddled with contradictory and opposing tendencies, yet achieved formal abolition, though of course it remains an unfinished project. What role might disaster communism play in such an uneasy meta-struggle? Clearly, it would be committed to the seeing-through of struggle, combating its premature abandonment through an uneasy compromise like the one that abolished slavery in the formal sense while preserving exploitation and racial domination. How do those of us opposed to the state as a solution work with, enable, criticise, or put pressure on those doing genuinely good work within (and sometimes also against) the state? It is clearly “more likely” that, as Holly Jean Buck states, we will “muddle through” ecological crisis than instigate planetary utopia, but it is also true that utopians have historically played a vital role in “muddling through.” And here’s the paradox: by accepting this, we cease to be utopian. So we’ll refuse to accept it.
Finally: we are mindful that for leftists who publish books (as it would appear we do now!), it can be useful to have a brand. We are happy to be associated with the term “disaster communism,” but it should not be limited to us and should survive only to the extent that it is taken up and modified by others, particularly by those in struggle. Secondly, terms take on lives of their own, which is why we opened by distinguishing our perspective from those who welcome disaster. We hope to be able to correct this, but if we can’t, we shouldn’t remain stubbornly attached to a label..
AB: The question of technology is a fraught one in environmental politics. You advocate “cyborg agroecology” as a way to overcome unhelpful dichotomies—technophilic modernism on the one hand and a blanket suspicion of technology on the other. What is “cyborg agroecology” and what are the advantages of this perspective?
OOTW: So many of our ecological problems seem to be created and exacerbated by technology—energy networks, data farms, supply chains, genetically modified organisms habituated to pesticides, a series of complex infrastructure systems nested in other infrastructure systems. It seems that there are only two responses from the left: either replace these technological systems with new and improved technologies (say, solar farms and wind turbines) or negate the whole lot of them. Many ecological debates are organized around these wholesale strategies and their related binaries (global versus local, fast versus slow, acceleration versus braking, abundance versus austerity, etc). We argue that where technology is concerned, both options rest on a misdiagnosis which detaches “technology” from the socio-economic systems in which it is embedded. This is not to say that any given technological system is “neutral”—that is, without politics. Instead, the problem with detaching technology in this manner is it tends to reinforce a moral economy of “good, natural harmony” (whether techno-philic or -phobic) versus “bad technological change.” This dichotomy distracts us from the real divisions in the capitalist social totality: the concentration of power in white heteropatriarchal imperial capital, on the one hand, and the dispossession of the proletariat and, for that matter, the lumpenproletariat of the world, on the other. A long essay in Endnotes 5 called “Error” ends on the following analysis, which we find helpful: “Much of the current technical structuring of the world is profoundly anti-communist, and struggles to come will have to work around such things until they can defeat or subsume them. Building that power will involve the establishment of new technical mediations and the repurposing of old, to the ends of a collective self-reproduction outside of class and an offensive expropriation of those who will attempt to reimpose relations of exploitation.” Here, we find both a recognition that the technologies of the world are not designed for communism, and yet any such movement must “work around” them in the process of building that latter world and its sociotechnics. In the book, we expand on this through the concept of “bricolage.”
Cyborg agroecology is our attempt to think through the problems revolutionary movements face in appropriating, repurposing, or abandoning contemporary agricultural techniques and their related food systems. Following the early writings of socialist-feminist Donna Haraway, we propose a “cyborg” agricultural system as a method of reframing the technological debate outlined above. A cyborg is, for Haraway, a recognition of the relational entanglement of technical systems with bodies, social formations, and ecological systems. It gets us away from thinking about technology only as machines or infrastructures and prompts us to think more broadly in terms of means-oriented activities, from languages and myths to the quite varied tool use by non-human animals. The cyborg perspective also helps us see how standards like “organic” and “natural” food can be completely unhelpful in adjudicating a food system. These standards frequently rely on arbitrary designations influenced by large producers, and require costly permitting, again benefiting capitalist agriculture. The “natural” designation does more work ideologically than it does to help us actually create a just food system.
Now, many anarchists, communists, and other revolutionaries are rightly interested in producing more ecologically benign and socially just food systems. Two tendencies currently dominate the discussion. First, in the Global North, at least, many tend to operate at a kind of quaint scale that precludes thinking through the mass coordination and repurposing of food production and distribution for all. We don’t mean to condemn these movements, which include the Black-led urban farms in many US cities. The people involved are often aware of the limits and contradictions imparted by scale and capital, which remain insoluble at a technical level. On the other hand, anti-work socialists and so-called “eco-modernists” imagine a hyper-industrialized agriculture which purposefully forgets the massive subsidies of materials and inputs (manual and intellectual labor, technology, raw materials, etc.) required to make such a system appear as if it is not labor-intensive. It is not accidental that this forgetting relates to labor and inputs from colonized and imprisoned subjects of the colonial system..
Cyborg agroecology thinks with and through global peasant movements like La Via Campesina, not least for the way they highlight the extractive, colonial, and imperial aspects of the current food system. But we also emphasize that these movements take a pragmatic and innovative approach to agroecology that forgoes romantic, pastoral images of pure organicism. Instead, they develop their own situated approach to food provision. Because of the utter carnage the ecological crisis is wreaking—not just in terms of climate, but of phosphorus and nitrogen cycles as well as biodiversity —we will require new kinds of inquiry and new tools of repair to go along with any new social forms.
Cyborg agroecology is one example of what could be a broader suite of “cyborg ecology” practices, which could include approaches to cities, infrastructure systems, health and medicine, environmental remediation, and so on. At the same time, we should keep in mind that these are never without internal contradictions and political struggles which must be resolved in and through the social formations in which they are embedded.
AB: Uncritical responses to the pandemic assert, for example, that “humans are the virus.” What are the risks of such a perspective? More broadly, what are the varieties and dimensions of eco-fascism?
OOTW: By itself, the statement “humans are the virus” is not sufficient to conjure a specifically fascist response to ecological crisis. As Bue Rübner Hansen has pointed out, such statements can be a part of various liberalisms and capitalist governance strategies which might explicitly position themselves “against” fascism. Genuine fascism emerges historically and foundationally, as Aimé Césaire memorably noted, as an “internal” application of European and Euro-American practices developed in colonialism and imperialism. That’s why in Hope Against Hope, we examine these tendencies within/related to ecological ideology as “reactionary,” “proto-fascist” or “völkisch.” They’re a kind of ambient ideological viewpoint which may or may not be central to the governing logic of the “capitalist death cult” that we see apparent (not unrelatedly) in COVID-19 and ecological crises more broadly.
All that said, the obvious risk of uncritical and banal assertions that “humans are the virus” is the conditioning of a social class ready to accept (and perhaps participate in) a broader and more widespread planetary depopulation. Rarely are the political consequences of such a program announced by their promoters as clearly as Garrett Hardin did in his 1970s essay “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor.” In Hope Against Hope, we show how and why Hardin advocates both immigration restriction and mass death in the name of white survival. In the contemporary moment, we more frequently see absurdities like the Michael Moore-produced documentary The Planet of Humans. Released in April 2020, the film purports to expose the fallacy of capitalist organization of green energy to save the planet. Instead, the filmmakers offer the ludicrous proposition that “every expert [they] talked to” agrees that the “same underlying problem” of population growth is to blame. It’s difficult to understate how obscene such a political project is and how forcefully we must reject this reactionary tendency wherever it appears. We must offer instead not a “techno-optimist” or “ecomodernist” quick-fix or defense of green capitalism, but an alternative critique of capitalist maldistribution and an alternative proposition for a world of abundance and commonality.
AB: The title of your book refers to an emotion. Why is your book called Hope Against Hope?
OOTW: In the introduction to the book we talk about the despair and helplessness that can come from confronting the enormity of ecological crisis. This is a perfectly appropriate response: we have all felt it and, indeed, continue to feel it. Yet unchecked despair leads to political quietism or the kind of fatalism that simply accepts the reactionary tendencies outlined above. Despair can be predicated on an ignorance of the struggles that operate within, struggle against, and aim beyond ecological crisis; or a consciousness of their infrequency, insufficiency, or failure. We do not have faith in these struggles, but we do have hope for and from them.
Hope can be dangerous too, though. It can be sundered from struggle, becoming this horrible, vague principle which is itself a quietism. This “bad hope” functions as an ahistorical, essentialised property of human existence which people cling to in the face of a world which gleefully absorbs that hope, all the while refusing to permit that which might be reasonably hoped for. This cartoon and this terrible, widely-circulated text illustrate that perfectly, channelling this hope into the nation-state in ways which resonate with the proto-fascism outlined above.
So we are very much in agreement with writers such as Ernst Bloch and Darren Webb when they insist that a militant, utopian hope needs to be distinguished from this complicit hope. This is one sense that we invoke hope against hope. And with Bloch or José Esteban Muñoz, we’d also contrast our hope to optimism or expectation: those forms disavow the agency and necessity of struggle, and often result in an inability to deal with setbacks. Hope, as Bloch says, is disappointable. Hence “more in hope than expectation” or, more pertinently for us, “hope against hope.”
There’s a famous song in the UK called “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It was adopted by fans of the football club Liverpool during their search for justice after disastrous structures of the kind we now confront led to the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster. The lyrics of the song implore us to “Walk on, walk on / With hope in your heart / And you’ll never walk alone.” We would invert the logic of this statement with a disaster communist future in mind—it’s not that we find ourselves with others because we have hope, but rather that we have hope because we are with others.