For the past few months, and especially this week, I’ve been sinking further and further into despair. I am not referring here to my depression, which can be similar but is actually entirely different. The despair I feel is not for myself. It is not the result of some chemical imbalance, lack of mindfulness, or deep seated psychological trauma. My despair comes from witnessing the barbarity of the world I was born into and my inability to change it in any meaningful way. It is how I mourn something much bigger than myself.
The famous (in leftist circles at least) saying is “socialism or barbarism”. The phrase has a convoluted, esoteric, history but it was popularized in an edited version of a paragraph in Rosa Luxemburg’s “Junius Pamphlet”, written a year into the First World War,
Friedrich Engels once said: ‘Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.’ … Until now, we have all probably read and repeated these words thoughtlessly, without suspecting their fearsome seriousness. … Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration – a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war.”
The First World War killed 18 million people. The Russian Revolution was a desperate effort to end the war to end all wars, but the world revolution that the Bolsheviks expected never came. The German Revolution of 1918-1919 failed. Luxemburg was bludgeoned, shot, and thrown into the Landwehr Canal by proto-nazis. The USSR barely survived allied invasion and civil war only to come out the other side completely isolated, with the working class destroyed, and most of the country reduced to rubble. Under these conditions socialism could not be built and barbarism ensued.
60 million people died during World War Two, which ended in the complete obliteration of 130,000-230,000 people in Nagasaki and Hiroshima by atomic weapons. The atom bomb would cast a shadow over the rest of the 20th century, during which millions more were displaced and killed by imperialist war, disease, starvation, genocide, and the quest for profit at all costs. It’s a testament to life itself that anyone managed to survive the century at all.
The failures of socialism during the first decades of the 20th century led directly to the barbarism of the rest of that century. My biggest fear is that we are too late to stop the continued, and coming, barbarism of the 21st. Ethnic cleansing and/or genocide continues throughout the world, we are in the midst of a refugee crisis the scale of which has never been recorded in history, nuclear apocalypse once again hangs over our heads, inter-imperialist competition may lead to a major war, and propagates bloody proxy conflicts across the globe, 82% of the wealth created last year went to the top 1% of people on earth, monopolies dominate the global economy and national governments implement neoliberal policies to crush their working class. This is all overwhelming, but not cause for total despair. Even in the darkest moments of the 20th century there was an ember of hope that humanity would somehow persevere, that a better world was truly possible, that there would be another chance to remake society into one where everyone receives according to their needs and all provide according to their ability, where the principles of fraternity, equality, and liberty were actualized, where peace prevails and technology is used to thrust humanity to heights we’ve only dreamed of.
But this is the 21st century and we will have to face the single most catastrophic event in human history: climate change. There is scientific consensus that to avoid catastrophe the planet must not warm beyond 1.5C. It is very likely that that goal is already out of reach. It would be too long of a blog post to list all the ways this temperature rise would wreak havoc on every species on earth, but a recent op-ed in the Guardian does a good job of getting across how alarmed we should be,
According to the World Wildlife Fund’s 2016 Living Planet Report, over the last four decades the international animal population was reduced by nearly 60%. More than a billion fewer birds inhabit North America today compared to 40 years ago. In Britain, certain iconic species (grey partridges, tree sparrows, etc) have fallen by 90%. In Germany, flying insects have declined by 76% over the past 27 years. Almost half of Borneo’s orangutans died or were removed between 1999 and 2015. Elephant numbers have dropped by 62% in a decade, with on average one adult killed by poachers every 15 minutes.
We inherited a planet of beauty and wonders – and we’re saying goodbye to all that….
It may seem impossible to imagine, that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we’re now in the process of doing.
This passage from the New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert concluded a piece on global warming, which was published way back in 2005. Over the 13 years since, the warnings from scientists have grown both more specific and desperate – and yet the march to destruction has only redoubled its pace.
The extraordinary – almost absurd – contrast between what we should be doing and what’s actually taking place fosters low-level climate denialism. Coral experts might publicize, again and again and again, the dire state of the Great Barrier Reef but the ongoing political inaction inevitably blunts their message. It can’t be so bad, we think: if a natural wonder were truly under threat, our politicians wouldn’t simply stand aside and watch.
And yet our politicians don’t just stand aside and watch. Funded by the corporations and billionaires pillaging the planet and inundated with a capitalist ideology that constantly sounds the refrain “profit over people and planet”, they put enormous effort into maintaining the status quo.
The capitalist class perpetuates climate change, not the working class. Only a few people on the planet own the oil companies, the fracking companies, and the coal plants- and it’s not you or me. They must be overthrown. But the Left is in complete disarray. Divided into dozens of small sects and completely submerged in activist culture with no roots in the working class, we are less effective then ever at a time when we are needed the most. The working class itself has been pulverized by attacks on it by the state. It too is at its weakest point. The socialist parties and the working class, beaten badly, and disconnected from one another, are the only hope of ending capitalism and saving life on this planet from the horrors of climate change.
Despair is a strange feeling. The ember of hope that existed for many in the 20th century seems to be dying out inside me in the 21st. I often find myself thinking “socialism or barbarism? Maybe it’s just barbarism or barbarism.” Maybe we lost in 1919 when Rosa’s body was thrown in the Landwehr Canal and the last 99 years has been the long death knell of humanity. Dread focuses my mind on this thought and I can feel the hope leaving my body. I’m terrified that we are too late, that even if the Left got it’s house in order tomorrow we would still be too late. It’s a painful feeling. I imagine my children and grandchildren as refugees. I imagine the millions of refugees right now. I force myself to try to imagine their pain and desperation. I imagine Manhattan under the Atlantic. I imagine deserts as far as the eye can see. I think of the people who will starve, and those who are starving, I think of the ongoing wars and the wars that will be fought, I think of the clean water disappearing. It would seem that my despair is justified.
But it isn’t. Today I saw a homeless man keeled over on the sidewalk. I made sure he was breathing and I moved on. A new feeling washed over me and drowned my despair. That feeling was rage. Most people had walked by this man. Even I only made sure he was breathing, I should have tried to wake him, to call 311 and get a case worker and EMTs to assist him, but I didn’t. I felt rage at myself for my complicity. I felt rage at society for allowing this man to be in that position at all.
This rage shook me from my despair induced stupor. If we give in to despair we are doomed, if we allow ourselves to hope than we have a chance, however small. I have about 50 years left to live, and I won’t spend it walking by people who are in pain. It’s never too late to help one another. It’s never too late to agitate, educate, and organize. Find the good you are capable of doing and do it. The more you fight back the stronger that ember of hope will burn. Even if the world ends tomorrow it’s better for it to end knowing we turned that ember into a raging fire and that even if the fire dies it burned beautifully until our last moments.