Sunday, October 4, 2009

Theory in the News #1: Murdering the Dead

Phoenix Insurgent

This is the first in what I would like to be an ongoing, if irregular series linking up theoretical pieces to current news, in the hopes of increasing the appreciation for theory, as well as sparking some dialog about ideas and action in the real world. Here at PCWC we really believe in the importance of reading history and theory in order to understand our world and how to take action in it towards creating a world of equality and freedom. As we say on our bookmarks (which are available free at any of our public events), "READ SMASH READ AGAIN". That is, get your ideas, try them out, evaluate them and read some more. Repeat. The more context you have, the better.

This weekend I ran across the news of a mudslide in Sicily that has killed at least 22 people. I noticed while reading the coverage that environmentalists and locals decried illegal building and corner cutting for the disaster. This from the Times:
The scale of the disaster was blamed on illegal development linked to the mafia.

Torrential floods knocked over buildings, buried vehicles in mud and forced many people to flee to the roofs of their homes.

Among the dead was a man who was submerged and suffocated in mud on the main piazza of one of Messina's suburbs. Another man drowned when his cellar flooded. The injured were evacuated by boat and helicopter because roads were impassable.

Roads and railways were choked with mud, cutting off at least three villages and forcing rescue workers to try to reach then on foot.

As the Italian government declared a state of emergency, authorities blamed a fierce overnight storm which dumped nine inches of rain in just three hours.

But locals and environmental groups said the disaster had been worsened by years of deforestation and illegal building of houses and apartment blocks, some of it linked to Sicily's Cosa Nostra mafia.

"We're paying a very high price for having devastated the environment with unlawful and uncontrolled development," said Vittorio Cogliati Dezza, president of Italy's main environmental organisation, Legambiente.
In addition, Euronews reports that "[t]orrential rain triggered mudlides that swept away roads and houses in the town of Messina. But officials say shoddy building practices contributed to the tragedy and have opened a manslaughter inquiry." As anger mounts among survivors, they have increasingly demanded accountability for the disaster. Again from Euronews: "[Survivors] want to know why construction was allowed on apparently unstable land. Some accuse the government of being more concerned with a project to build a bridge between Sicily and the mainland than the welfare the island's residents."

Responding to the mounting pressure, the hard right prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, promised government aid to rebuild. According to the VOA, "Italy's prime minister visited areas struck by deadly mudslides in Sicily and promised to build new houses for the hundreds of people left homeless. He said he would provide new homes for them just like he did for the victims of the quake in l'Aquila earlier this year."

The money will flow and more construction will take place, we are assured. Certainly that's the logical response to disaster, isn't it? Note the almost casual referencing of a previous disaster as a precedent for the response to the current one. Setting aside the image of that fascist Berlusconi riding to the rescue yet again, replacing the destroyed buildings with new, shiny ones, placating residents and setting everything right, is there more to this story? Is there something we can draw on from theory in order to understand what's going on in Italy (and all over the world) as disasters increasingly mount?

In that light, today I want to highlight the writings of Amadeo Bordiga, especially his ideas of technology, "disaster" and capitalism. Bordiga was a leading light of the Italian Communist Left for quite some time, and while most of his positions on the party are not terribly useful for anarchists -- in particular he had a rather limited view of the ability of workers themselves to self-organize -- he did maintain a militant position against the participation of the party in the bourgeois democratic process throughout his life that is interesting. Notable not just for that, but for his rejection of the popular front method of organizing (a form that would prove fatal for revolution in Spain during the civil war) and his face to face calling out of Stalin as the "gravedigger of the revolution", Bordiga also had very interesting ideas on the inherent tendency of technology under capitalism to result in death, destruction and, as he called it, the "murder of the dead".

For Bordiga, technology necessarily led to "disaster" because of two in-born and inescapable tendencies of capitalism. First, the necessity to maximize profit and to minimize costs naturally created the conditions in which shoddy work and the cutting of corners caused systemic failures, not necessarily immediately, but often in the future. Second, capitalism, always in need of creating more commodities, therefore likewise tended to destroy what Marx called "dead labor" so as to re-create that which was destroyed with "living labor". In many ways, war is the ultimate expression of this reality, but it happens throughout economies in many other ways. Dead labor is the things that workers have produced that continue to have productive capability. Machines was one example Marx used frequently. In short, destroy it and you get to force workers to make it (or something else) again, and that gets the capitalists more profit and more capital (with the added benefit of re-disciplining the working class).

He writes in his essay "Murder of the Dead":

Modern capital, which needs consumers as it needs to produce ever more, has a great interest in letting the products of dead labour fall into disuse as soon as possible so as to impose their renewal with living labour, the only type from which it “sucks” profit. That is why it is in seventh heaven when war breaks out and that is why it is so well trained for the practice of disasters. Car production in America is massive, but all, or nearly all, families have a car, so demand might be exhausted. So then it is better that the cars last only a short time. So that this is indeed the case, firstly they are badly built with a series of botched parts. If the users break their necks more often, no matter: a client is lost, but there is another car to substitute. Then they call on fashion with a large cretinising subsidy of advertising propaganda, through which everyone wants the latest model, like the women who are ashamed to put on a dress, even if perfectly good, “from last year”. The fools are taken in and it does not matter that a Ford built in 1920 lasts longer than a brand new 1951 model. And finally the dumped cars are not used even for scrap, and are thrown into car cemeteries. Who dares to take one saying: you have thrown it away as if it were worthless, what harm is there in me fixing and reusing it? He would get a kick up the backside and a gaol sentence.

To exploit living labour, capital must destroy dead labour which is still useful. Loving to suck warm young blood, it kills corpses.

This lesson is instructive to us in this time of ongoing and seemingly never-ending disaster. Bordiga reminds us that these so-called disasters are not disasters at all. That is, they are not random. Because these system failures result from the inherent limitation of capitalism, in Bordiga's view, the resulting destruction and death ought to be treated as pre-meditated crimes, not accidents. In that sense, the advance of technology and sciences under capitalism results in what we ought to consider murder. Treating them as disasters removes the hand behind them from the scene, cleansing it of culpability and obscuring analysis.

Indeed, as the environment continues along its ever-increasing lurch towards collapse, spurred on by the very same cancerous force of capitalism, it's worth looking critically at such catastrophes in order to prevent the tendency of the system and its protectors from both creating the disaster and then profiting from its solution. So towards subverting that end, I would recommend readers consider the re-issue by Antagonism Press of a collection of Bordiga's essays on disasters. The whole book is online for reading, but I would recommend the introduction and the chapter "Murder of the Dead" as particularly instructive. The rest of the articles, for the enterprising reader, do not disappoint either. The book is short and well worth your time.

In an age of collapse and systemic failure, especially noting the way that anarchists and anti-authoritarians have been turning their attention towards disasters as breeches of the general monotony and regular discourse of civlization (and opportunities for struggle and mutual aid), as well as, as Naomi Klein has pointed out, albeit in a much less radical fashion, the tendency of the capitalist class to engineer and then capitalize on crises, it is therefore quite important that we develop a theoretical understanding of crisis, collapse and systemic failure. Bordiga goes a long way towards informing us in that direction.


Murder of the Dead by Amadeo Bordiga

Murdering the dead: Amadeo Bordiga on capitalism and other disasters - Introduction by Antagonism

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