“Business as usual” during the Holocaust and the climate crisis

I’m reading Ward Churchill’s Pacifism as Pathology [PDF], a polemic against pacifism and non-violence as a moral-political code. The rather grim and harsh section analyzing the Holocaust stood out to me. Ward unpacks what he sees as a general pattern of non-resistance among most German and European Jews against the Nazi’s steady escalation from discrimination to genocide. He argues that a key factor in this was that local Jewish leadership at the time was largely pushing a pacifist strategy, where resistance was seen as potentially inviting more repression and violence against Jews, than simply going along with Nazi oppression and hoping not to anger them more. Much of this was about sticking to “business as usual”.

Bettelheim describes this inertia, which he considers the basis for Jewish passivity in the face of genocide, as being grounded in a profound desire for “business as usual,” the following of rules, the need to not accept reality or to act upon it. Manifested in the irrational belief that in remaining “reasonable and responsible,” unobtrusively resisting by continuing “normal” day-to-day activities proscribed by the nazis through the Nuremberg Laws and other infamous legislation, and “not alienating anyone,” this attitude implied that a more-or-less humane Jewish policy might be morally imposed upon the nazi state by Jewish pacifism itself. (p36)

Now, I haven’t done much reading on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, beyond the basics, so I have no idea how accurate this narrative is here about whether Jews were that passive, or what the politics of the German Jewish leadership was like, etc. Nonetheless, this idea — that even in the face of tremendous and escalating evil and violence, people still clung to the idea that perhaps if they just kept their head down and obeyed, things would go back to normal — really struck home, mainly in the context of thinking about the ongoing collapse of Earth’s biosphere.

This collapse may very well turn into a sort of Holocaust, if current trends of expanding fossil fuel infrastructure and political non-action continue. And despite this, much of the organizing against the climate crisis does not seem to match the reality of the situation; it is generally legal, non-disruptive, and not a significant threat to “business as usual”. There are some notable exceptions, of course, mainly in indigenous struggles like the Standing Rock standoff. But mainstream environmental movements are simply not acting with the seriousness and anger that their rhetoric would seem to demand. Its all generally very respectable and reasonable, fully rooted in normal day-to-day activities; at most, they wheel out the same dusty and tired tactics of performing street theater and perhaps some symbolic arrest rituals coordinated with the police. Meanwhile even The Economist is acknowledging that things are going pretty badly, with fossil fuel companies cheerfully continuing to expand their operations; Exxon Mobil is apparently planning to increase oil production by 25% by 2025.

Likewise, mainstream politics still continues to marginalize any serious discussion about climate change; it was barely mentioned in the 2016 US presidential elections (except for maybe that one time Bernie Sanders brought it up in response to a question about national security) and so far none of the presidential candidates for 2020 have made climate change even close to a central campaign plank. The recent hullabaloo about the Green New Deal is a welcome change to this trend, although it remains to be seen whether it’ll fade away the next time Trump says something stupid and scandalous. It would be fair to hypothesize that Democratic politicians are secretly climate change deniers, given how little action they actually take despite rhetorically upholding the grim scientific consensus.

Nathan J. Robinson of Current Affairs has written more eloquently about all of this. In “The Climate Change Problem“, he points out the huge gap between rhetoric and action about climate change, and how it could be a factor in why many people don’t take it seriously or think its a hoax. More recently, in “The Choice We Face“, he goes to town on the zoo of dipshit centrists who are scoffing at the Green New Deal without providing even a hint of an alternative — which again, betrays the fact that they are, functionally, climate change deniers, albeit more subtle and quiet about their denial than their brash Republican counterparts.

To tie it back, a lot of this most definitely has to do with the fixation on maintaining “business as usual” — not just in terms of capital accumulation, although that is central, but in terms of keeping with the inertia of one’s day-to-day routines, the general safety of normalcy, and the comforts of remaining an obedient citizen. Robinson suggests that those who really believe in climate change should be spending all their time trying to move their fellow humans toward action — but of course, nobody wants to be that guy, the loudmouth who gets invited to fewer and fewer parties and hangouts, because he won’t shut up about the trees and the bees. And climate change is certainly a much more abstract crisis than Nazism and the Holocaust — the latter was most definitely present in your day-to-day life, an undeniable force to take into account, even if this was done passively. But if people for the most part really did not resist their own extermination then, what exactly are we to do today to actually halt our collective civilizational dismemberment?

I’m really not sure. But there are a few things we can start doing, mainly in the realm of ideas. For one thing, while we should try not to annoy people, since that is self-defeating, we should definitely bring up climate change more in conversation, especially with folks who aren’t that political and/or have a long-term dream of quiet suburban family living. A more fun suggestion is that in terms of proposed actions, we ought to up our rhetoric; enough with the mundane bullshit about calling your representative or recycling or whatever, let’s talk about climate vengeance. Lets work toward normalizing the idea of ruthless property expropriation and punitive measures against the capitalists and politicians responsible for the crisis. Name names, call them out as the real eco-terrorists, and talk about seizing all their assets and locking them up. Fire and brimstone sort of stuff. Lastly, pacifist ideology needs to be countered within the environmental movement, and there needs to be a larger strategic discussion about how to actually push the large-scale system change needed to reverse the collapse of the biosphere. The movement absolutely has to get more aggressive, more disruptive, and yes, more violent. No more with unquestioned  self-confinement to the rules of the non-profit industrial complex and the broken legal system. Climate change is already a large scale act of ongoing violence, potentially unprecedented in scope and depth; fighting back is a question of self-defense.

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