Tag Archives: capitalism

Disorientation and decomposition

The modern Internet is an immense and finely-tuned engine for distraction and diversion. The big tech companies have some of the smartest people in the world working around the clock to ensure that their platforms are as engaging, addictive, widespread, and panoptic as possible. (Indeed, I’d like to see the economists who complain about the low observed productivity gains from the information revolution do a study on whether productivity gains were simply undermined by workers wasting a good chunk of their work time with dithering around on the Internet).

I think this is a key reason why the modern world feels like its in a state of constant frenzy, and why its so easy for people today to feel disoriented. As commented on in “Too Fast, Too Furious”, a wonderful essay from n+1 published in late 2015, the Internet has created an endless stream of information, audio-visual consumables, and social media chatter. This is part of a larger trend where capitalist innovation in labor-saving technology has created the paradox where workers (in the imperialist cores) by and large have more free time than they once had, but also find this free time under constant stress, pulled apart by an unceasing barrage of inescapable nudges and tugs, in an infinite number of directions, by an infinite number of competing corporations pushing an infinite number of goods and services. Combine this with the stress of working meaningless jobs and running on the hamster wheel of bills and debts, and disorientation becomes one’s natural state.

Systematic attack on our minds is not new. Such is the entire history of the advertising industry, as laid out in Tim Wu’s excellent book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (2016). What is new is how effective, intrusive, and ubiquitous advertisements today are, with the ability of advertisement technology corporations to soak up huge amounts of information about our social and psychological dynamics and adjust their ads accordingly. This is not just the result of technological advancements, but also the absorption of huge amounts of social activity into social media platforms, which can then apply data science and artificial-intelligence techniques to continually analyze and manipulate human behavior. Our social lives have become increasingly sucked into intelligent and interactive billboards, and our thought processes increasingly outsourced to advertising algorithms. This Twitter thread by a Google AI researcher is a good description of all this (although it is amusing that he puts all the blame on Facebook, as if Google isn’t doing the same thing).

The framework of class composition can be useful in analyzing all of this. Economic restructuring — shutting down and moving factories, deploying labor-saving automation, stratifying the labor markets by race and gender — disrupts working-class organization by breaking up the economic foundation on which such organization was structured. Likewise, social and psychological restructuring — pulling social interactions and individual entertainment into a world of infinite scrolling, push notifications, and constant information overload — disrupts our own ability to sustain in-depth, complex lines of analysis, and build and maintain relationships that are genuinely on our own terms. Of course, the flip side of economic restructuring is that even as old working-class forms of organization are decomposed, the new economic structures drive new forms of working-class organization, as seen in the major worker rebellions in China in the late 2000s, or in the unrest among tech professionals and gig workers in the US in recent years. Likewise, the flip side of social-psychological decomposition can be seen in the subversive uses of the Internet to drive networked, decentralized movements like the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter.

However, it is essential that we don’t mistake these positive flip-sides to mean that there is some kind of teleological, automatic process where capitalist development generates an equally powerful reaction. It should be clear by now that the networked, decentralized movements dependent on social media have been unable to undermine capitalist power, and easily dissipate on contact with the hard, well-organized forces of capital and the state. This should be expected — as observed in “Too Fast, Too Furious”, the social spaces provided by techno-capitalism don’t allow for particularly deep experiences or relationships. These will only come about in the “real world”, outside of and autonomous to state and capital. Thus, while radicals should make use of social media platforms and related communications technologies, it is crucial that the ultimate purpose of such uses points outside of these disorienting spaces.

Enron and 1990s capitalism

It is remarkable how much of bellwether Enron turned out to be regarding structural changes within capitalism — despite the fact that the company ultimately turned out to be fraudulent house of cards built on bizarre and incomprehensible accounting tricks (although then again, maybe its fraudulent aspect is precisely that which most represents capitalism’s fundamentals). Studying the rise and fall of Enron is like studying the political economy of the 1990s in general. The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron (2003) covers the whole saga with definitive detail.

Initially, in the ’80s and early ’90s, Enron was a logistics company in the energy industry, specifically focusing on owning natural gas infrastructure. This involved being the intermediary between gas production plants and consumers, selling access to pipeline capacity, ensuring delivery, etc. Before long, Enron started to financialize all these physical assets, which coincided with the steady deregulation of the energy markets. Gas contracts were made more short-term, and trading markets were set up so that contracts could be bought and sold by third parties, and speculation on future prices started to increase. Of course, since Enron controlled a large portion of national natural gas infrastructure, they had access to high-quality information to inform their bets.

Even as Enron slowly morphed into primarily being a financial firm, they expanded their physical operations globally by hopping on the international development train that was taking off after the end of the Cold War. This was a time when privatization of assets and contracts across the Third World was heating up, and Enron was buying up energy and resource access in places like India and Brazil. A lot of these deals turned out to be total busts, not least because Enron was far more interested in closing big deals, fast, than in actually running an efficient and profitable operation, or even making deals that made long-term financial sense. And when they did make a profitable longer-term deal for themselves, as in the case of the infamous Dahbol gas plant in Maharashtra, India, they turned out to be such blatantly crooked deals that they were eventually shut down by popular backlash. For an analysis specific to Enron’s global operations, check out Vijay Prashad’s Fat Cats and Running Dogs: The Enron Stage of Capitalism (2002).

Within the company, the real fraud turned out to be in the accounting. Enron used “mark-to-mark” accounting, popular on Wall Street, which allowed you to book the total expected profits from a deal immediately, instead of as the cash actually came in over the life of the deal. The flip side of this is that if the expected value of the deal decreases in the future, you have to mark that down as a loss. Of course, Enron never did that, and took the abuse even further by twisting their assumptions about deal profitability to absurd lengths to book whatever amount of profits they needed to hit their quarterly earnings targets. And when they did have to face a loss, Enron shuffled away them away in weird shell company entities so that losses and debt were moved off the company books. However, these didn’t actually disappear, and slowly grew as a ticking time bomb over the course of the ’90s.

But even before the accounting fraud finally blew up, Enron became infamous for their actions during the 2000-2001 California electricity crisis, when they took advantage of a shoddy power deregulation effort to manipulate the markets and engage in serious price-gouging. By this point, Enron’s physical assets had grown to include power systems, and they used these to do things like withhold or divert power to drive up prices, or overload the transmission line schedules to get paid to not produce power, and so on.

Last but not least, Enron even tired to get into the Internet business, by trying to roll out broadband networks and to build a trading operation for Internet access like they had done for natural gas and electricity. This turned out to be a bust, not only because they didn’t understand the technology, but also because the dot-com bubble popped in 2000.

So to sum up, the story of Enron is also a story of logistics infrastructure, energy deregulation, state privatization, international development and neocolonialism, financialization and speculation, Internet and tech — and, fundamentally, the short-term systemic thinking that is central to the overall operations of capitalism. Wowza!

Post-Western films and the violence of capital

There has been an interesting trend in Hollywood in recent years around a new kind of Western. I’ve been calling them “post-Western”. Films in this category are set in the modern Western hinterlands, in the small towns and back-countries of states like Texas, Arizona, and Wyoming, and feature similar plots and themes as the old Westerns, like anti-heroes, lawlessness, individual valor, isolation, revenge, etc.

The main difference between the traditional Western and the post-Western is not in the actual time period (1800s vs. modern times), but rather, the portrayal of the changing position of the Western landscape within global capitalism. Westerns portrayed an area that was the dynamic edge of capital, with white settlers clearing the way for industrialization and development by chopping through Native Americans and Mexicans. It was a celebration of a civilization conquering fresh and promising new lands, sparsely inhabited by barbarians and rabble. Post-Westerns, on the other hand, examine this same region it its contemporary phase: stagnant, exploited, and decaying, whatever promises and romances the area once conjured up now revealed as a sick joke.

[Discussion/spoilers ahead for: Hell or High Water, Sicario, Wind River, No Country For Old Men, and Logan] 

Hell or High Water (2016) captures the post-Western perfectly. This film centers around two middle-aged brothers who are robbing banks across small-town Texas, in order to pay for their recently deceased mother’s mortgage — owned by the same bank they are robbing. The film also features two Texas Rangers, one white and one Native American, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, respectively. A conversation the two partners have during a stake-out of a bank sums up the socio-economic trajectory of the West:

Hamilton: Just relax, and enjoy this little town.

Parker: You wanna live here? There’s an old hardware store that charges twice what Home Depot does; one restaurant with a rattlesnake for a waitress; and how’s anybody supposed to make a living here?

Hamilton: People have made a living here for 150 years.

Parker: People lived in caves for 150,000 years, and they don’t do that no more.

Hamilton: Well, maybe your people did…

Parker: Psh, your people did too. Long time ago, your ancestors was the Indians. ‘Till someone came along and killed them, broke them down, made you into one of them. 150 years ago, all this was my ancestors’ land. Everything you could see. Everything you saw yesterday. ‘Till the grandparents of these folks took it. And now its been taken from them. Except it ain’t no army doing it. Its those sons of bitches right there. [points at the bank]

This discussion reveals one of the cruel ironies of the West today: that the denizens of the rural and small-town West find themselves being cut down and devoured by the very same forces that their ancestors once served. It is this cannibalism by capital that infuses the background of Post-Westerns.

texas_bank

Hell or High Water was written by Taylor Sheridan, and his other scripts also fit the Post-Western genre. Sicario (2015) showcases the US-Mexico borderlands and the reach of the underground drug economy, as well as the nature of the modern national security state. In the traditional Western, lawlessness and vigilantism are shown as the consequence of the young and untamed nature of the frontier. In Sicario, we are confronted with a powerful and mature institution that is absorbing and co-opting the very criminality it is supposed to suppress, a mutation of the armed wing of the state in an opportunistic and self-serving feedback loop — which shouldn’t be surprising, given the traditional relations between American empire, various reactionary paramilitary formations, and the drug economy (see: Colombia).

Another of Sheridan’s films, Wind River (2017), is set in the Wind River reservation in Wyoming, home to the remnants of the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes (and unfortunately and inexplicably, still has two white actors as the leads). The film turns the lens back to original victims of America’s western expansion, and shows that even if capital is now crushing those whose ancestors aided in its expansion, this doesn’t mean that the crushing of Native Americans has ceased in the meantime. The film revolves around the rape and murder of a Native girl, which is ultimately tied back to white oil workers stationed at a nearby extraction site. This, of course, points to how the conquest of native territory was always about seizing control of some kind of natural resource, from fertile farming lands to mineral deposits to fossil fuels. The pillaging of the land, and the accompanying human violence, has remained a constant presence across the West since the appearance of the first white settlers.

Since it is the specter of capital lurking around the background that defines the Post-Western, it is a bit tricky to lump No Country For Old Men (2007) under the label. Despite aesthetically being some kind of Western, the overall setting doesn’t really have the same kind of characterization that it does in Sheridan’s trilogy; there isn’t much sense of history or change in the motels, ranches, and small-town stores that the actual characters move through. However, perhaps the specter of capital here is actually directly personified in the demonic antagonist, Anton Chigurh, whose philosophical nihilism is only matched by his ruthless violence against anybody who stands in the way of his mission — even those who hired him in the first place. Chigurh’s inexorable march toward victory, and the bodies he leaves behind, echoes the way the ceaseless operations of capital explicitly liquidate the small town and back-country backgrounds of Sheridan’s films.

And just what is the end-point of capital’s inexorable, ceaseless processes? For this answer, we could turn to an unlikely candidate: Logan (2017), the final installation of Marvel’s Wolverine franchise, starring Hugh Jackman. This film fits the category of post-Western, as much as it does superhero, science-fiction, and/or dystopian. Corporate paramilitary groups appear to hold dominance not just in the US-Mexico borderlands, but across the US entirely. The degenerating national security state that we saw in Sicario is either completely absent, or has mutated into something totally unrecognizable. Mutants have been wiped out, and those who are left are seen as a resource to be enslaved and harvested for bio-genetic and military R&D. Capital, left to run amok, has uprooted and disintegrated everything that may have been good in this world.

It is a deeply grim picture; and yet, the goofiest aspect of the movie is also the one that may have the most to say about the Western landscape and its past and future. Logan’s ultimate enemy in the film ends up being a cloned version of himself, young, healthy, and strong, and stripped of all the moral trappings the real Logan has gained over the years. This confrontation can reveal an allegory of the Western genres. The real Logan, like the post-Western setting, is old, ragged, and full of self-doubt. The cloned Logan, like the traditional Western setting, is young, enthusiastically violent, and completely unquestioning of its mission and purpose. The real Logan is the West at its decaying end; the cloned Logan is the West in its blood-soaked beginning.

Despite the odds, of course, real Logan — with the help of his clone-daughter and other young fugitive mutants — defeats the clone Logan, and then promptly dies, allowing the torch to be passed on to the next generation. It is here that some hope can be found, among all the bleakness and nihilism that has thus far defined the post-Western and what it shows about the dying Western hinterlands and the ever-present specter of capital. Despite its bloody, imperial origins, the modern West can still harbor resistance and rebellion, even among those whose ancestors partook in its original savagery. The key is to not look backward, toward a mythical golden era that never existed, but indeed to bury this mythology and look forward to what may still be created, against and outside of capitalism.

Netscape and the rise of technocapitalism

Only ’90s kids will remember Netscape, the original browser of the Internet before the era of Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, and Google Chrome. But what we didn’t realize was the impact Netscape had on capitalism, and the way it symbolized and perhaps even initiated a recomposition of political economy. I have a hypothetical periodization of capitalism that I’ve been trying to work out, involving a distinction between industrial capitalism, finance capitalism, and technocapitalism, based on what industries are dominating the economy and directing the flow of capital, and studying the Netscape era yields some very useful information.

Netscape was the first real “unicorn”, a tech start-up that becomes valued in the billions of dollars by big investors. It was the brainchild of Jim Clark, an eccentric entrepreneur in the likes of Steve Jobs, whose impact on Silicon Valley has been documented in Michael Lewis’ The New New Thing (1999). Clark had already made a small fortune during the 1980s from his first start-up, Silicon Graphics, which had revolutionized graphic cards and 3-D rendering and paved the way for graphic user interfaces and the personal computer. But as the company grew, it was essentially taken over by Wall St. investors, who pushed out Clark and took control of the the profits.

Bankers taking control of up-and-coming companies wasn’t exactly a novel thing; it was how things were in the 1980s. But with Netscape, Clark was determined to not lose control and money to the bankers again. The new company, and its core product — an Internet browser — suddenly made the Internet more accessible to the average person by many orders of magnitude, and thus also meant a massive, massive market opportunity.

Its not clear exactly what kind of bargaining power Clark had against Wall St. Part of it was probably just a case of information asymmetry, and the bankers having severe FOMO. But in any case, he and his team played hard and fast against selling out the company too early, or for too few shares or seats on the board, and the result was that Netscape was the first tech firm that had engineers and programmers at the top, controlling the lion’s share of capital and the flow of profit. Wall St. made money too, of course, but they were simply following along in the wake. When the company launched its IPO in 1995, it turned the engineers and programmers into millionaires, and the co-founders into billionaires, and forever changed the game for Silicon Valley. Even though the company would be very quickly run off the road by Microsoft and Internet Explorer, the nature of its rise created a new standard for the ambitions and strategies of its entrepreneurs, and flipped the balance of power between tech capital and finance capital.

However, the Netscape era was only the beginning of a larger recomposition and re-balancing of global capitalism. The rise of technocapitalism rode on the Dot-com bubble, which burst in 2000 and eviscerated the industry. The survivors would kneel once again before finance capital — until the latter had its own reckoning in the 2008 financial crisis, after the housing bubble burst. Once the smoke cleared, tech would once again be in the vanguard of capitalism, based on the foundations built by companies like Netscape years earlier.

“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.

Finance capitalism vs. industrial capitalism

What marked the beginning of the modern era of finance capitalism, and what differentiates it from the earlier era of industrial capitalism? There is some good information and arguments on this in David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), and in Gerard Dumenil and Dominique Levy’s Capital Resurgent: Roots of the Neoliberal Revolution (2004) (which is cited extensively by Harvey).

By most measures, finance capitalism arose out of the crisis of the 1970s, and its hegemony has lasted at least until the 2008 crash. There were several factors in why finance capital started becoming so structurally dominant:

  • The collapse of the Bretton Woods system (which regulated international monetary policies and tied the US dollar to a gold standard), thus making most currencies free-floating, and loosening the ability of capital to flow across national boundaries
  • The oil shocks of the 1970s, caused first by the 1973 OPEC embargo and then by the 1979 Iranian Revolution, drastically increased the profits of oil-producing nations, who subsequently invested these super-profits into Western banks
  • The political turn toward financial deregulation in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, which was both a consequence and a cause of the increasing economic power of finance capital
  • The Volcker Shock, which spiked interest rates in 1979 and ushered in an era of high real interest rates through the 1980s and 1990s; this drastically increased the flow of capital toward creditors (financial institutions), and as companies or even whole governments defaulted, sold off assets, and restructured, finance gained more and more direct control over the global economy

One major qualitative change in the era of finance capitalism seems to be the commodification of consumption. This might be a strange way of putting it; after all, isn’t consumption always about consuming commodities? But what I mean here is that under finance capitalism, the very act of consuming — the purchasing goods and services — itself becomes a commodity, to be bought and sold on the market, in the form of various types of consumer debt.

Another major qualitative change was in the nature of corporate governance and the control of profits. After the 1970s, industrial production was increasingly controlled according to the dictates of finance. More and more profits were sucked up into finance companies and to shareholders, rather than reinvested back into production, as was the general trend during industrial capitalism; and on the flip side, many industrial corporations increasingly branched out into finance themselves.

Capital Resurgent, p111

Another way we can describe this periodization is by pinpointing where the center of dynamism was in the economy during different eras. In the era of industrial capitalism, the cutting edge of profit-making was in creating new industrial goods: automobiles, household appliances, houses, gadgets and widgets and doohickeys and whatnot. In the era of finance capitalism, the cutting edge of profit-making shifted toward the creation of new types of debt and other avenues for extracting surplus value from the circulation of capital, rather than just in production and distribution.

I’m not sure quite how accurate all of this is; there are some good graphs in Capital Resurgent clearly demonstrating how finance companies become very powerful in the 1980s and 1990s, if you judge by metrics like market cap or rate of profit. However, other metrics — i.e. consumer debt in the US — don’t as strong or clear of a trend. It’d be useful to find some more raw data-sets on such things, to get a stronger quantitative understanding of the transition.

But the real purpose of thinking through this potential framework of industrial capitalism vs. finance capitalism is to consider whether there has been yet another shift, toward an era of technocapitalism, where the cutting edge of profit-making is in the commodification of data. After all, data has been declared to be the new oil, and tech companies are generally understood to be at the top of contemporary capitalism’s pyramid. This also raises the question of how useful the term “neoliberal” actually is, and whether it is specific to finance capitalism and whether we need a more nuanced understanding for technocapitalism. But more on this another day.

California’s new fifth season

The Fifth Season is the name of the first book of the Broken Earth series, a critically-acclaimed science-fiction/fantasty trilogy that is set on an alternative Earth that is far more geologically active, to the point where climate catastrophes are routine, civilizations are in a constant state of imminent collapse, and the specter of a sudden and horrific increase in resource scarcity is always looming.  An era of a climate catastrophe is called a “Fifth Season”, and usually lasts years or even decades, and is usually marked by volcanic ash and smoke choking up the atmosphere and blocking out the sun.

It seems likely now that Northern California will be having its own “fifth season” of wildfires and smoke, between fall and winter.  Last year, in October, firestorms wrecked havoc across Northern California, and dumped smoke into the rest of the Bay Area for several weeks.  44 people were killed, and $14.5 billion in damage was done.  It was the first time I can remember that the Bay Area was severely affected by wildfire smoke from the northern regions.

Post-fire wreckage of what was once a suburban neighborhood in Santa Rosa, CA 

Now, its happening for the second year in a row, with devastating fires in Butte County creating even more unprecedented smoke conditions in the Bay Area.  The Camp Fire is already the most destructive in Californian history, with 63 confirmed dead so far and entire towns burned to the ground.  The smoke around Sacramento and the Bay Area has oscillated between “unhealthy” (AQI > 200) and “hazardous” (AQI > 300) levels.  As of right now, the Bay Area appears to have the worst air quality in the world.

Before and after pictures of smoke in Oakland, CA   

This interview from Inside Climate News with a Californian climate scientist sheds some light on how climate change is exacerbating California’s wildfires.  The main points:

  • The usual reminder that climate change doesn’t cause natural disasters, but does exacerbate things
  • California’s fire season has typically been in the summer and especially in the fall, and ends when the first rains hit; but climate change has been disrupting the typical rain patterns and it has been raining later and later in the year, extending the wildfire season into November
  • The warming climate means that trees and other plant matter lose moisture more quickly, making them much more combustible

Another relevant factor is the massive amount of dead trees in California — around 100 – 130 million — which are an excellent fuel source for wildfires.  The dead trees are a result of both the ongoing drought, which is made worse due to climate change, and bark beetles, which have spread from Central America and up the West Coast, all the way into Canada, and have found easy prey in the drought-weakened trees of California.  The warming climate also helps the beetles, by helping them survive the winters.

What will be the result of California’s new fifth season?  Like in the Broken Earth trilogy, it will certainly not help with resource scarcity, especially housing, and put more and more strain on government budgets.  And it will definitely reshape our behaviors and the way we will plan out our cities and our lives; there are serious questions that ought to be raised, such as whether there is a right to protective equipment, when a municipality ought to declare a state of emergency, how to be proactive about smoke damage to at-risk populations, and how to enforce safety standards onto the multitude of corporations that will be sure to drag their workers into the toxic air regardless of what prevailing medical advice is.

It is worth emphasizing that natural disasters are ultimately bounded by what kind of socio-economic system they encounter.  In addition to battling against fossil capital, what we need to do is develop “disaster communism” (see as described by Commune, Libcom, and Verso) as a counter to disaster capitalism, and take advantage of climate chaos in whatever ways we can, both for survival as well as revolutionary class struggle.