MATRICES OF CONTROL:
MODERNITY, INDUSTRIALISM, AND CAPITALISM.
By Steven Best
In the transition to what is called “modernity”—a revolutionary European and American social order driven by markets, science, and technology—reason awakens to its potential power and embarks on the project to theoretically comprehend and to practically “master” the world. For modern science to develop, heretics had to disenchant the world and eradicate all views of nature as infused with living or spiritual forces. This required a frontal attack on the notion that the mind participates in the world, and the sublation of all manner of the animistic and religious ideologies—from the Pre-Socratics to Renaissance alchemists to indigenous cosmological systems—which believed that nature was magical, divine, or suffused with spirit and intelligence. This became possible only with the dethronement of God as the locus of knowledge and value, in favor of a secular outlook that exploited mathematics, physics, technology, and the experimental method to unlock the mysteries of the universe. Modern science began with the Copernican shift from a geocentric to a heliocentric universe in the sixteenth century, advanced in the seventeenth century with Galileo’s challenge to the hegemony of the Church and pioneering use of mechanics and measurement, while bolstered by Bacon’s and Descartes’s call to command and commandeer nature; and reached a high point with Newton’s discoveries of the laws of gravity, further inspiring a mechanistic worldview developed by Enlightenment thinkers during the eighteenth century.
For the major architects of the modern worldview—Galileo Galilei, Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and Isaac Newton—the cosmos is a vast machine governed by immutable laws which function in a stable and orderly way that can be discerned by the rational mind and manipulated for human benefit. Beginning in the sixteenth century, scientific explanations of the world replaced theological explanations; knowledge is used no longer to serve God and shore up faith, but rather to serve the needs of human beings and to expand their power over nature. Where philosophers in the premodern world believed that the purpose of knowledge was to know God and to contemplate eternal truths, modernists exalted applied knowledge and demystified the purpose of knowledge as nothing more than to extend the “power and greatness of man” to command natural forces for “the relief of man’s estate.” Through advancing mathematical and physical explanations of the universe, modernists replaced a qualitative, sacred definition of reality with a strictly quantitative hermeneutics that “disenchanted” (Berman) the world and ultimately presided over the “death of nature” (Merchant).
This involved transforming the understanding of the universe as a living cosmos into a dead machine, thus removing any qualms scientists and technicians might have in the misguided project of “mastering” nature for human purposes. The machine metaphor was apt, not only because of the spread of machines and factories throughout emerging capitalist society, but also because—representing something orderly, precise, determined, knowable, and controllable—it was the totem for European modernity. Newton’s discoveries of the laws of gravity vindicated the mechanistic worldview and scores of eighteenth and nineteenth century thinkers (such as Holbach and La Mettrie) set out to apply this materialist and determinist paradigm to the earth as well as to the heavens, on the assumption that similar laws, harmonies, and regularities governed society and human nature. Once the laws of history, social change, and human nature were grasped, the new “social scientists” speculated, human behavior and social dynamics could be similarly managed through application of the order, harmony, prediction, and control that allowed for the scientific governance of natural bodies.
The rationalization, quantification, and abstraction process generated by science, where the natural world was emptied of meaning and reduced to quantitative value, is paralleled in dynamics unleashed by capitalism, in which all things and beings are reduced to exchange value and the pursuit of profit. In both science and capitalism, an aggressive nihilism obliterates intrinsic value and reduces natural, biological, and social reality to instrumental value, viewing the entire world from the interest of dissection, manipulation, and exploitation. Science sharply separates “fact” from “value,” thereby pursuing a “neutral” or “objective” study of natural systems apart from politics, ethics, and metaphysics, as capitalism bifurcates the public and private sectors, disburdening private enterprise of any public or moral obligations.
The kind of rationality that drives the modern scientific, economic, and technological revolutions—instrumental or administrative reason (herrschaftwissen)—is only one kind of knowledge, knowledge for the sake of power, profit, and control. Unlike the type of rationality that is critical, ethical, communicative, and dialogical in nature, the goal of instrumental reason is to order, categorize, control, exploit, appropriate, and commandeer the physical and living worlds as means toward designated ends. Accordingly, this general type of reason—a vivid example of what Nietzsche diagnoses as the Western “will to power”—dominates the outlook and schemes of scientists, technicians, capitalists, bureaucrats, war strategists, and social scientists. Instrumental knowledge is based on prediction and control, and it attains this goal by linking science to technology, by employing sophisticated mathematical methods of measurement, by frequently serving capitalist interests, and by abstracting itself from all other concerns, often disparaged as “nonscientific,” “subjective,” or inefficient.
The dark, ugly, bellicose, repressive, violent, and predatory underbelly of the “disinterested” pursuit of knowledge, of “reason,” and of “democracy,” “freedom,” and “rights” as well, has been described through a litany of ungainly sociological terms, including, but not limited to: secularization, rationalization, commodification, reification (“thingification”), industrialization, standardization, homogenization, bureaucratization, and globalization. Each term describes a different aspect of modernity—reduction of the universe to mathematical symbols and equations, the mass production of identical objects, the standardization of individuals into the molds of conformity, the evolution of capitalist power from its competitive to monopolist to transnational stages, or the political and legal state apparatus of “representative” or “parliamentary” democracies. Each dynamic is part of a comprehensive, aggressive, protean, and multidimensional system of power and domination, co-constituted by the three main engines incessantly propelling modern change: science, capitalism, and technology. In industrial capitalist societies, elites deploy mathematics, science, technology, bureaucracies, states, militaries, and instrumental reason to render the world as something abstract, functional, calculable, and controllable, while transforming any and all things and beings into commodities manufactured and sold for profit.
From Exploitation to Administration.
Critical theorists and postmodernists resisted Marxist economic reductionism to work out the implications of Weber’s “iron cage of rationality” that tightly enveloped the modern world by the nineteenth century. A critical counter-enlightenment trajectory leads from Nietzsche to Weber to Georg Lukács through Frankfurt School theorists like Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Jurgen Habermas, to postmodernists such as Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard. Although many relied on key Marxist categories, they sought a more complex concept of power and resistance than allowed by the economistic emphasis on capital, alienated labor, and class struggle. Where Marx equates power with exploitation, the capital-labor relation, the factory system, and centralized corporate-state power, modern and postmodern theorists of administrative rationality brought to light the autonomous role that knowledge, reason, politics, and technique serve in producing systems of domination and control. Thus, on this line of reasoning, in the early twentieth century German philosopher Martin Heidegger theorized modernity as a huge system of “enframing” that reduced things to mere objects and functions available for human use. Adorno and Horkheimer revealed the “total administration” of society through instrumental reason that sought control over objects, the environment, and human individuals and populations by eliminating difference and treating everything as resources suited to manipulation and control. They witnessed how culture and the arts had been colonized by capitalist values and industrial methods, such that creative works once judged on aesthetic criteria such as originality, sublimity, and edification were assessed instead on economic grounds as commodities with potential mass appeal capable of generating enormous profits. Culture, in short, had become a culture industry, where artworks became commodities for mass production, distribution, and consumption, designed according to rationalized formulae, and administered
through a bureaucratic chain of command.
Similarly, Marcuse documented the loss of critical reason, autonomy, and individual transformation in a “one dimensional” society ruled by capital, state bureaucracy, and technoscience. This system precludes, represses, or absorbs dissent and opposition amid a monotone culture of corporatism and conformity devoid of opposition and dissent. Rather than a centralized control system dominated by corporations and the state, Foucault analyzed modernity as a plurality of micro-institutions such as hospitals, schools, and prisons. Foucault argues that capital exploitation of labor is only one aspect of power, which is far more general in its nature, strategies, and range of effects. Power should be understood not as exploitation, but as rationalization, or rather, as a series of discursive-institutional employments of rationality that seek to “normalize” and “discipline” individuals and populations through the liquidation of alterity and the production of docile minds and bodies. In works such as For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1981) and The Mirror of Production (1975), Jean Baudrillard interprets political economy as a gigantic system of bureaucratic administration of all social life, such that capitalism is less a structure in itself than an institutional instantiation of a larger rationalization process. In a notable more recent updating of a Weber-Marx synthesis, analyzing the logic and consequences of industrialization and capitalism, sociologist George Ritzer described the “McDonaldization of society.” For Ritzer, this process describes a global phenomenon in which society and culture come under the logic of mass production, standardization, mass consumption, and capital markets. As McDonaldization spreads insidiously, it dulls consciousness, destroys diversity and difference, and integrates people into the global factory system in spheres of production and consumption, work and everyday life, while spreading markets and commodification imperatives in all directions, always with the intent to amass capital and power for the minority elite.
Clearly, instrumental reason targets not only objects and things for control, but also subjects and society; and just as mechanistic science moved seamlessly from objectifying heavenly bodies to policing social bodies, so administrative rationality moved from controlling nature to manipulating society. The disciplining of bodies in eighteenth century schools, the ubiquitous gaze of guards over prisoners in nineteenth century penitentiaries, the Taylorization process in twentieth century factories that studied workers’ movements to minimize wasted energy and maximize surplus value; the eugenics discourse and mass sterilization policies in the United States during the 1920s; the networks of mass culture, electronic media, and advertising that constitute a vast “society of the spectacle” (Guy Debord) that transforms citizens from active agents to passive consumers; the colonization of minds of children, youth, and adults through a cornucopia of chemical toxins that dull, deaden, and neutralize minds through pharmaceutical warfare—these are only some of the seemingly infinite methods and techniques used to regiment populations, pacify resistance, neutralize activity, and eliminate opposition.
A Light Snuffed Out.
Despite the optimistic predictions of sundry eighteenth century Enlightenment thinkers in Germany, France, the United States, and elsewhere, the rise of science, technology, global markets, rationality, and critical thinking did not lead to universal peace, happiness, and prosperity for the world’s peoples. In the alchemy of capitalist modernity, things morph into their opposites, and thus dreams spawned nightmares, visions of light brought darkness, knowledge bred ignorance, productive forces evolved into destructive forces; competition led to monopoly; wealth produced misery; automation extended the regime of labor, and freedom multiplied domination. The unfettered development of reason, science, technology, and markets did not eliminate wars, abolish poverty, or annul want. Like “democracy” and “rights,” the discourse of “Progress”—the Gospel of Modernity—disguises private interests (the small minority who comprise the financial, political, and cultural elite) under the mask of universal discourse (e.g., “the rights of man”). “Progress” thus works to obscure unjust social relations and to legitimate science, technology, and capitalism, and thus is a mantra created by and for elites.
The underbelly of the Enlightenment and “Age of Reason” was riddled with racism, patriarchy, genocide, slavery, and colonialism, and the leaders and ambassadors of modernity had the audacity to uphold capitalism, science, and industry as a “civilization” par excellence, generating a society that allegedly transcends the legacy of “savage” and “barbaric” cultures. This “pinnacle” of human evolution, this “mature” realization of promise in relation to which non-Western and pre-modern societies were but “infants,” proved its superiority through two world wars, fascism, totalitarianism, genocide, and atomic warfare, followed by a nuclear arms race and ecological destruction on a planetary scale. In the tragic “dialectic of enlightenment,” Adorno and Horkheimer noted, reason morphed into its opposite as “catastrophe radiated over the earth.” Whereas modern theorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries championed the spread of reason, science, and technology as emancipatory, “postmodern” critics of the late twentieth century attacked these forces as coercive and oppressive. They rejected the naïve coupling of reason and freedom to argue that reason aided by science, technology, and capitalism produces monsters and catastrophes. Accordingly, Lyotard finds the main characteristic of the “postmodern condition” and fin-de-siècle malaise to be “incredulity toward metanarratives” (i.e., modern progressivist visions of history as a linear and purposive movement of events toward the confluence of reason and freedom.)
Habermas, however, rejects postmodern critiques themselves as totalizing, as one-sided polemics that conflate different forms of rationality into one oppressive force that allegedly has colonized all of society. For Habermas, the problem with modernity is not too much rationality, but too little. That is, whereas modernity is characterized by the hegemony of instrumental rationality which seeks a technical mastery of nature and society, the Enlightenment culture generated a communicative rationality that is concerned not with power and control but rather the logic of raising different validity claims which require redemption under conditions of argumentation while seeking consensus over important issues of government and social regulation. Whereas Habermas agrees with critical modernists and postmodernists that instrumental reason has bolstered the domination of human over nature and human over human, he insists that communicative rationality can decouple reason and domination. Thus, he believes, there are positive aspects of the Enlightenment and modern liberalism that can be redeemed and developed toward emancipatory ends. The Enlightenment, therefore, is not dead or unqualifiedly disastrous; rather, Habermas declares it and modernity as a whole to be an “unfinished project.”
Systems of Command.
After World War II, and the huge gains made by U.S. corporate and military interests, the idea of a manifold and structured power system—an industrial complex—was first articu-lated and became common vernacular. In his seminal work, The Power Elite (1956), sociologist C. Wright Mills theorized the structural outcomes arising from the mutual class interests uniting military, governmental, and business leaders within an anti-democratic oligarchy. During his January 1961 Farewell Address to the Nation, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of a menacing new “military-industrial complex,” a post-war power bloc composed of the armed forces, private defense contractors, weapons suppliers, the Pentagon, Congress, and the Executive Branch of government. Invoking this unholy alliance among industrialism, capitalism, and state militarism, Eisenhower cautioned that weapons and warfare had become new industries and capital markets that may boost the economy but undermine the Constitution and upset the “balance of powers” among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.
But it was not only the military that had exploited science and technology, appropriated industrial models of production and organization, used bureaucratic organization techniques, and produced commodities—deadly weapons of war—for capital markets and profit motivations. As Eisenhower delivered his somber address, the foundations of the military-industrial complex were already set and began multiplying and manifesting in different institutions, disciplines, fields of research, and social institutions. The military-industrial complex was but part of a larger revolution bent on remaking American society, Western Europe, and ultimately the entire globe in its own image of power, subjugation, and profit. At the same time, its autonomy congealed within basic paradigms or structures rooted in imperatives of control, domination, efficiency, and profit within various hierarchical systems of rule. In this sense, as Noam Chomsky has described it, the military-industrial complex is “a misnomer . . . There is no military-industrial complex: it’s just the industrial system operating under one or another pretext.”
In the decades since Eisenhower’s speech, one sees in capitalist societies the fluid and dynamic merging of science, technology, mass production, capitalism, bureaucracy, and hierarchical power systems. It was not only the military that had merged with market models, industrial paradigms, systems of mass production, growth and efficiency impera-tives, and bureaucratic administration, but also every other institution of society. By the mid-twentieth century, in sectors ranging from medicine, agriculture, media, and entertainment, to security, education, criminal justice, and transportation, virtually all institutions were reconceived and reconstructed according to capitalist, industrial, and bureaucratic models suited to the aim of realizing profit, growth, efficiency, mass production, and standardization imperatives. These systems, moreover, interrelate and reinforce one another. We can see this, for instance, in how the constellation in which the academic industrial complex does research for the medical industrial complex and Big Pharma, exploiting the nonhuman animal slaves of the animal industrial complex in university, military, and private vivisection laboratories and producing fraudulent research financed by and for pharmaceutical capital. The dubiously researched drugs are patented, typically fast-tracked into market sales by the obliging Food and Drug Administration, and then advertised through the media industrial complex. Up to 115 million animals die worldwide annually to perpetuate this fraud, and the human victims of research-for-profit succumb to the medical industrial complex for costly “disease man-agement” (not “health care”) treatment that treats only symptoms to focus on the ultimate objective of profit. The dissent of animal rights activists is criminalized by the security industrial complex, and many are sent off to languish, along with one out of every one hundred adults in the U.S. population incarcerated in the prison industrial complex.
Similarly, in the fast-growing academic industrial complex, universities are no longer noble institutions of “higher education” but rather profit-seeking corporations that treat students as commodities; replace costly tenured profes-sors with the cheap labor of part-time, contract, and adjunct instructors; and emphasize the highly lucrative fields of science, engineering, and athletics, while marginalizing “non-performing” disciplines such as philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. Universities also opens their doors to the military and security industrial complexes to staff the U.S. global war machine and repres-sive state apparatus with well-trained functionaries. Meanwhile, our food system has become thoroughly industrialized and corporatized as small, family farms have been bankrupted and assimilated into the giant conglomerate holdings of agribusiness. Thus, factory farms have become the international business standard, as agribusiness giants such as Cargill and Monsanto absorb remaining tradi-tional farms into their global networks by coercive attempts to impose seeds, pesticides and herbicides, and service technologies they patent and own, and taking advantage of “genetic pollution” on neighboring farms to sue, destroy, and control their land as well. But to announce the role of these multinational companies in determining the shape and nature of our lives is to recognize that the capitalist-industrial complex has become global, diversi-fied, interconnected and networked.
The Dialectic of Globalization.
In a classic work, Karl Polyani (1957) described the “great transformation” from prein-dustrial to industrial society. With Douglas Kellner, I attempted previously to theorize the transformation of twenty-first century global industrial society—the postmodern adventure (which designated dramatic changes in the economy and society, but also in science, technology, politics, culture, nature, and human identity itself). (...)
The termination of the Bretton Woods financial system and the collapse of the Soviet Union followed in the wake of centuries of capital-driven globalization. Neoliberal capitalism has become the new paradigm of permanent growth. The implications of the neoliberal stage of capitalist marketization are enormous, as capitalism universalizes its rule, throws off “superfluous” and “injurious” constraints on “free trade,” and increasingly realizes the goal of purity of function and purpose through the autonomization of the economy from society, so that the social is the economic. Over the last few decades, Takis Fotopoulos notes, “A neoliberal consensus has swept over the advanced capitalist world and has replaced the social-democratic consensus of the early post-war period.”
Not only have “existing socialist societies” been negated in the global triumph of capita-lism, so too have social democracies and the bulk of institutional networks designed to protect individuals from the ravages of privatization and the relinquishment of responsi-bilities to people in need to case them into barbaric barrenness of the “survival-of-the-fittest.” Over the last several decades, the capitalist production process itself has become increasingly transnationalized and thereby relatively autonomous (but not in total negation) of the archipelago of nation-states in favor of global institutions and power blocs of unprecedented influence and might. We have moved from a world economy to a new epoch known as the global economy. Whereas formerly the world economy was composed of the development of national economies and state-based circuits of accumulation interlinked through commodity trade and capital flows in differentiated world markets, today corporations and national production systems are reorganized and functionally integrated into porous global circuits, creating a single and increasingly homogenous field for massive and mobile capitalism.
Fuelled by new forms of science and technology, military expansion, and aggressive colonization of southern nations and the developing world, capitalism evolved into a truly global system. Global capital is inspired by neoliberal visions of nations as resource pools and open markets operating without restrictions. The process euphemistically termed “globalization” is driven by multinational corporations such as ExxonMobil and DuPont; financed by financial goliaths such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and legally protected by the World Trade Organization (WTO). It homogenizes nations into a single economic organism and trading bloc through arrangements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and the European Union (EU). Multinationals seduce, bribe, and coerce nations to open their markets and help drive down labor costs to a bare minimum, and rely heavily on corrupt dictators, loans and debt, and “hit men” and armies to enforce the rule of their “structural transformations” of societies into conduits for the flow of resources and capital. Globalization has produced trade laws that protect transnational corporations at the expense of human life, biodiversity, and the environ-ment. It is accompanied by computerization of all facets of production and expanding automation, generating heightened exploitation of labor, corporate downsizing, and greater levels of unemployment, inequality, insecurity, and violence
Debates rage over issues such as when globalization dynamics began and if current ones are continuous developments of centuries of global markets and exchange or something qualitatively new; whether corporate globalization is mainly a positive or negative dynamic; the degree to which globalization is largely under the command of U.S. capital and military interests or more diverse and plural powers; whether the United States is a declining empire and a power shift is underway from American-European capital to the rapidly modernizing and growing economies of the East (China and India) and the South (Latin America); the extent to which the nation state is still a significant force amidst the growing power of international corporate and financial networks; whether or not industrial logics such as standardization have been displaced by postindustrial developments (such as are organized more around communications, science, knowledge, and service industries than traditional manufacturing operations) and post-Fordist “flexible” production schemes, and so on. While a vast literature explains recent epochal shifts in terms like postindustrialism, post-Fordism, or postmodernity, we grasp numerous novelties but nevertheless insist that significant changes and reorganization in technology, organization, culture, and capital are best understood not as something qualitatively different, but rather as new stages in capitalism still dominated by profit and growth imperatives. And as theorists such as Claus Offe, John Keene, Scott Lash, and John Urry describe the restructuring process as “disorganized capitalism,” we see this as a complex form of the reorganization of capitalism, constituting a new mode of economic and social organization with momentous consequences.
There has been less realization, however, that structures of power are multiple, plural, and decentralized, and that we live amidst a tangled matrix of systems anchored in logics of control, standardization, exploitation, and profit. Taken together, this “power complex” continues to expand throughout the globe and to grow new tentacles, each system or network overlapping with and reinforcing others, and the totality integrating nature, animals, and human beings ever deeper into a veritable global industrial complex. The expansive, colonizing, interconnected network is comprised of numerous industry-capital specific systems such as the criminal industrial complex, the agricultural industrial complex, the medical industrial complex, the animal industrial complex, the academic industrial complex, the military industrial complex, the prison industrial complex, the entertainment industrial complex, and the communication industrial complex, to name some of the more salient configurations.
the powerful logics of industrialization and capitalism, symbiotically interlocked at least since the nineteenth century, have expanded, diversified, and colonized ever more institutions and organizing systems, and expanded into a world system. In any one institutional node of this protean and rhizomatic network, one can find logics, functions, and procedures that include commodification, profit-seeking, corporatization, and privatization; hierarchical command and bureaucratic administration; exploitation of technoscience and expertise; electronic information networks and profit-making goals; and structures of state and military repression, coercive violence, and prison to enforce institutional power.
By no means is globalization to be understood as an inherently negative dynamic or consequence of human history, as if the desideratum is fragmentation, isolation, provincialism, and nationalism. Ever since Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa and dispersed itself globally across the continents, human existence has been a global dynamic and knowledge, culture, and technologies have spread in all directions, such as with the influence of Islam on the West. Certainly, from the standpoint of the natural environment and the countless animal species driven into extinction, the rapid global growth of human populations, technologies, and economies has not been a positive development. But dissemination of knowledge, culture, and people is a positive and enriching process; indeed, it is now urgent that the paradigm shift from economics and growth to ecology and sustainability take root on a global scale. A salient distinction to be made here is between globalization from above (as dictated by multinational capital) and globalization from below (as realized in self-organizing and democratic ways by people in cul-tural exchange and open movement). And just as we reject the false option of seeing power as either macrological or micrological, recognizing both that power, resources, and wealth are concentrated like never before and yet distributed throughout societies in a wide range of institutions, none of which are reducible to ruling elites or a dominant class, so we reject framing the issue as Marx or Weber, in favor of Marx and Weber, while affirming the need for a host of other fruitful perspectives, such as the standpoints of gender, race, and species.
Moreover, it would be a serious mistake to think that the octopus of interlocked power networks covering the globe does not generate appropriate responses and relevant modes of resistance and struggle. Through even perfunctory perusal of sites such as Indymedia, Infoshop, 325nostate.net, Guerilla News, and Bite Back, one can see that resistance is intense, global, and total, against every system of hierarchy ever devised, giving rise to diverse and vital struggles for human, animal, and earth liberation. As dramatically evident in battles such as raged in Madrid in 1994, in Seattle in 1999, and in Genoa in 2001, “anti-” or, more accurately, “alter-globalization” groups throughout the world recognized their common interests and fates, and formed unprecedented kinds of alliances to fight against the globalization of capital. Global capitalism has emerged as the common enemy recognized by world groups and peoples, and resistance movements have come together in alliances that bridge national boundaries, North-South divisions, and different political causes.
Yet struggles have not kept pace with the scope and speed of planetary plunder; resistance movements are winning some battles, but losing the larger war against greed, violence, expanding corporate power, militarization, and against metastasizing systems of economic growth, technological development, overproduction, overconsumption, and overpopu-lation. The deterioration of society and nature demands a profound, systematic, and radical political response, yet in recent decades Left opposition movements have tended to become more reformist and co-opted on the whole, growing weaker in proportion to their strategic importance and the power of global capital. As the world spirals ever deeper into disaster, with all things becoming ever more tightly knit into the tentacles of global capitalism, there is an urgent need for new conceptual and political maps and compasses to help steer humanity into a viable mode of existence.
(..) It bears repeating that the forces of death, destruction, and domination today are not only capitalism, transnational corporations, and the banking and finance institutions, but are also states, militaries, bureaucracies, and sundry systems of control that aim to colonize and control nature, animals, and human populations. Additionally, the underlying mentalities of hierarchy and instrumentalism that have driven Western culture and beyond for over two millennia remain instantiated in the global consciousness. As such, they shape not only the materially systemic forms that domination now takes, but also present limiting factors for the planetary realization of liberation struggles.
If every moment is pregnant with revolution, this is an especially pivotal time in history, a crossroads for the future of life. As the social and ecological crisis deepens, with capitalism surging, inequalities growing, control systems tightening, forests disappearing, species vanishing, oceans dying, resources diminishing, and the catastrophic effects of global climate change now immanent and irreversible, windows of reasonable political opportunity for the production of an alternative social order are rapidly closing. The actions that humanity now collectively takes or fails to take will determine whether the future is more hopeful or altogether bleak.
As the corporate machines continue to slash and burn the planet, inequalities widen and power grows, logics of profit and control spread through social institutions, human numbers and the insatiable appetites of the global consumer society swell as the biodiversity of flora and fauna steeply declines, it is easy to become not only cautious or pessimistic about the prospects for planetary peace and freedom, but fatalistic and nihilistic. In the schools and social movement discourse, we are beginning to hear from some who appear resigned to the catastrophe playing out on this planet. Others, however, remain oblivious to this incredible moment in time and the epic tragedy of resigning humanity’s fate to be a failed primate species because of its inability to harness the evolutionary advantages of a large forebrain or overcome its predilection to tribalism, xenophobia, hubris, hierarchy, violence, alienation from nature and other life forms, and uncontrolled growth.
Surrender, however, is not an option. Our debt to the past and present is great, and we have no choice but to live in the tension that pits hopes and ideals against grim realities and unprecedented challenges. As Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci wrote, “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned.” But every crisis harbors opportunities for profound change, and the “grow or die” imperative that ought to shape our priorities is not capitalist in nature, but rather evokes the need for moral, psychological, and social evolution, to be realized in radically new forms of consciousness, species identities, ethics, values, social arrangements, and lifeways. There is no swift economic or technological fix for the myriad complex crises we confront. The only solution lies in organizing informed radical change across all levels of the integrated systems of domination—commencing with an emancipatory education into and critical understanding of the precise nature and dynamics of the systematic barriers blocking our journey into sustainable planetary community. Let us hope that this long march through the institutions does not further transform into a trail of tears.
This text is an excerpt from The Global Industrial Complex: Systems of Domination.