Tuesday, December 6, 2016


John Vandermeer
Science for the People
Ann Arbor, Michigan

The scientific community was rightly disturbed by the election of Donald Trump. One of his first acts was to suggest appointing a climate change denier to the EPA, and his general enthusiasm for the latest fantasy that might support his personal gain suggests that the material world that science seeks to comprehend is largely irrelevant to his mode of understanding. During the first few days of the post election period, amid legitimate cries of grief from those who will clearly be damaged by his election, two general narratives seem to have gained ground.  First, many people who supported Trump actually did so out of legitimate concerns (lost their jobs in the rust belt states, for example), and second, Trump is akin to Hitler and will bring potentially apocalyptic harm to racial, cultural and religious minorities, to women and the LGBTQ community, and to the planet itself.  The conclusion, fairly evident I suggest, is that we should reach out and try to understand people in the first category, while we join the fight of the second, against the trending actions of a true fascism, by any means necessary.
Nevertheless, we also need to process this event at a deeper level. It is not an isolated event, to be sure. Fair comparisons have been made to Brexit, the rejection of the Colombian peace plan, and the recent coup in Brazil. Although not on everyone’s radar screen, the upcoming election of Le Pen in France (hopefully not, but let’s be realistic), the upcoming canceling of democracy in Venezuela (hopefully not, but let’s be realistic), and a host of other radical right wing transformations in the world, should also be viewed as part of the same world-wide movement. Political analysts have tried to understand such a dramatic turn, with some success.  Yet the effect more generally, even the threat to the very principles of the European Enlightenment, has not really been fully explored.  In this context it is fair to ask, what will be the fallout with respect to science?
To answer that question, we need to be clear on the framework within which it is posed.  Noted historians (especially Jonathan Israel of Princeton and Margaret Jacobs of UCLA) provide us with a broad historical lens that seems to me relevant. Distinguishing the “Radical Enlightenment” from the standard historical narrative of the Enlightenment, they both note that stemming from the deep ethical and political principles outlined a century earlier by Spinoza, a true egalitarian sensibility underlay much of environmental thought, but was basically subverted by those who, perhaps subconsciously, worried that Thomas Hobbes may have been right.  Amidst all the crowing about democracy and the rights of citizens, in the end there would be a need for authority! A need for a strong figure to replace the authority of the king or queen. We all know how that worked out. Napoleon perhaps understood basic dialectics when he saw the contradiction between the underlying need for a strong authoritarian figure and the rhetoric of the Revolution that emphasized liberty, equality, and fraternity. Yet, as we know, rather than a philosophical synthesis, he focused on the authority, and the resultant “long nineteenth century” ended with the “war to end all wars.”  The carnage of WWI led many if not most people to assume that we would never do that again.  Subsequent history became even darker, as we approached another “war to end all wars,” and eventually the post war mantra that repeats itself regularly, that “history has come to an end”.
Throughout this time we have seen, in addition to revolution and war, and war and revolution, a slow change in attitudes. Most historians regard that long nineteenth century (the time bracketed by the Napoleonic wars and WWI) as something of a consolidation of Enlightenment principles. To be sure the idea that people have the right to select their mode of governance, that individual citizens have agency in their own social organization, even the very idea of the “nation” have become embedded in our thought processes during those years.  Yet it seems to me there is another set of principles that have slowly penetrated our subconscious, to some extent replacing those basic Enlightenment principles.  As noted by Doreen Massey, we have now been programmed to think of ourselves not as independent thinkers and movers encouraged by Enlightenment thought, but rather as consumers, customers and spectators who conscientiously ascribe to the philosophy that self-interest is all that matters.  Like the proverbial toad that sits in the pot as the water slowly warms until it reaches a lethal temperature, we all presume not only that this is the way it is, but even that this is the way it should be.  We are free to choose between being a consumer or spectator, a customer or provider, investing in our 401K or buying a new gizmo, never even considering the true potential of our human agency.  Trump enters into a world where we spectators gladly purchase his snake oil, looking the other way as the world burns, species go extinct, our brothers and sisters belittled, incarcerated, and worse. His “supporters” cheer, his “detractors” laugh at one of the most absurd personages to ever enter the public stage.  All spectators, customers and consumers. All, at their most fundamental level, narcissistic.
Massey’s point is about the capitalist system.  In this broader context Trump’s election takes on even graver meaning in what may be read from Hardt and Negri’s important work “Empire.”   The empires of old were powerful, totalizing structures, on which the “sun never sets.”  Today we are living in a world dominated by a different sort of empire.  As former CEO of ExxonMobil Lee Raymond famously said “I’m not a U.S. company, and I don’t make decisions based on what’s good for the U.S.”, the global reach of capitalism, perhaps already inherent in capitalism’s first imperial project, the Dutch East India company, has now reached a new level. Nations no longer matter.  The moral victory of the French Revolution has been cancelled.  The liberated citizens with their agency for betterment gave rise to the consumer, customer, and spectator, all under the watchful eye of international corporations whose articulation with the antiquated idea of the nation is there for the sole purpose of maintaining order -- a wizard behind the curtain.
With this point of view, the election of Trump only means a continuation of what was already there.  Perhaps exaggerated to the point of absurdity, but nevertheless nothing more than a symptom of the deeper crisis.  And given the real physical problems we face, it is regarded by most people in the world as a true crisis.  Science policy, and maybe even the great project of Science (with a capital S, the principles of rationality itself), is under attack.  Citizens are no longer expected to use science and scientific opinions and facts in judging policy (to the extent their opinion matters in the first place), but rather, they are expected to be spectators in this new great sport. They are only to be cheerleaders and consume whatever snake oil has the best advertising.  Such a prospect is horrifying in a world where climate change is already changing everything so that international energy companies can continue attracting long-term investors, where species are already going extinct because their habitats are destroyed by rapacious developers, where industrial agriculture is already turning vast swaths of land into unproductive deserts to serve international agrochemical corporations, where fishers are driving fish species to extinction so they can pay the interest on their bank loans, where bacteria are rapidly becoming resistant to antibiotics in service to the pharmaceutical industry. Such issues and a host of others require real science to inform worldwide policy. Must we hoe the new land that must be hoed with our hands tied behind our backs, because the Monarchy (excuse me, the “jobs providers”) might get upset with our analysis?

I propose we view Trump’s election as a moment of clarification, or at least as a catalyst for reflection.  The insane wealth of the billionaire class, the extreme poisoning of our environment, the degradation of the discardable folks (in Chomsky’s terms), are these unavoidable realities of the “best of all possible systems?”  Are the apparent facts that most of us (considering the world’s population) will never have a permanent job, and those of us who do will hate the work itself, new facts of the “real world?” Must we sacrifice one third of our lives (our “job” if we have one) to the newly defined deities of international commerce, much as our ancestors sacrificed goats?  It is not that such questions are new, they have been with us since the birth of capitalism. But they have intensified as Reagan and Thatcher made neoliberalism the law of the land.  Might it be the case that the unthinkable, the election of a proto fascist to the presidency of the United States of America, should make us take stock of what we have been taught is inevitable?