“Which coming flood?” Welcome to the Thunderdome of Ignorance
Wednesday Morning, April the 6th. Deutschlandradio, the German BBC, interviews Friedrich Merz, leader of the Conservative opposition. It's about the all-defining question of how the German government will best, i.e. in the cheapest and yet most morally and politically satisfying way possible, respond to the situation in Ukraine.
Question: "Can we still buy energy in Russia after Bucha?"
Answer Merz: "We have to get out, as quickly as possible. But we have to act in such a way that the economic damage for our country doesn't become too great."
Just to clarify: the question is basically "Is there any way we can ignore the moral pressure being brought to bear on you, on all of us, to stop contributing to the stability of a murderous, proto-fascist regime through our economic activities?" Merz' answer is "Yes, because the truth is: we will only stop supporting and causing violence through our economic activities if doing so brings us no relevant economic disadvantages. We just have to accept that fact.”
This German version of George Bush Senior's “The American way of life is not up for negotiations (Öffnet in neuem Fenster)”, as extreme as it may sound, is in fact the extremely widespread opinion of the German mainstream, as the debate about Germany's coal phase-out showed a few years ago. From the head of the then (2018) still semi-relevant Left Party to the head of the German Trade Union Confederation, from the head of the employers' federation to the German chancellor, pretty much everyone with the exception of the anti-coal and climate justice movement was of the opinion that a few (at most 20,000) well-paid industrial jobs in Germany were a good enough reason to argue against fulfilling even the wildly insufficient emission reductions commitment made in Paris.
This “German Wohlstand über Alles” would be a shitty attitude even if this were a merely a matter of weighing up two 'legal goods' against each other: job stability is of course not as important a legal good as physical survival, which is what climate protection is all about. But we have to take this line of reasoning one step further: burning lignite is, after all, partly responsible for the fact that the climate crisis is rapidly escalating; purchases of Russian fossil fuels are partly responsible for the fact that the Russian war machine is currently able to commit war crimes in Ukrainian villages, suburbs and cities.
This is because we live in an economic "externalisation society": The economically positive, wealth-creating effects of fossil capitalist production and this country's "imperial mode of living" (Brand/Wissen (Öffnet in neuem Fenster)) have their counterpart in economically negative, wealth- and welfare-destroying effects in other, mostly poorer, mostly "southern" parts of the world. German sociologist Stefan Lessenich has written a wonderful book on this subject, the title of which perfectly sums up his thesis: "Beside us, the flood. The Externalization Society and its Price". For Lessenich, we are not living beyond our means, but beyond the means of others. There is indeed a causal connection between the high standard of living, on a global scale, of most people living in Germany, and poorer standards of living in poorer countries. Paraphrasing Bertolt Brecht, we could say that “if we weren't rich, they wouldn't be poor”.
We are "subconsciously aware" of this fact every day, because (and I would make this argument for every level of education, for every level of news consumption at least in Germany, and probably most EU-countries) we all know, every time we pick up our smartphone, get into a car, or put on our fast fashion clothes from Primark, Zara or another, maybe posher brand, there is a part of us that knows that these products are in our hands, under our asses or on our bodies because we in turn are relatively high up in a global pyramid of violence, oppression and exploitation. Knowledge of this fact is now so widespread in any country with a halfway decent (i.e. accessible) education system, or just basic internet access, that it can be considered "common knowledge.": knowledge of the violence of global capitalism, whether fossil or green; of patriarchy and cis heteronormativity; of racism and "white supremacy."
A quantum of violence, exploitation and oppression
But in order to not constantly feel guilty about this externalisation of violence, exploitation and oppression – maybe even ashamed, in order to avoid the cognitive dissonance that the constant awareness of sitting very high up on a global pyramid of exploitation and violence would necessarily bring with it - we have to engage in Verdrängung (a psychoanalytical term, the precise translation of which is somewhere between repression and sublimation). I have built the following, no doubt overly simplistic and mechanistic model for this operation: every bit of capitalist production, every bit of consumption-under-capitalism, especially in the global North, is accompanied by a certain amount, by a quantum of violence, exploitation and oppression. This quantum is externalised to a considerable extent, that is, exported to other areas of the world. This externalisation in turn produces a quantum of guilt exactly corresponding to it, which then has to be repressed in order to avoid cognitive dissonance.
Very occasionally, this guilt even takes on concrete form, e.g. in the figure of the "economic migrant," who does not flee to the liberal-rich North for "legitimate," "political" reasons, but for base, economic motives, such as the desire to survive, perhaps not to be destitute, and even to have some mildly pleasant prospects for ones future. What happens to this migrant? She is, first, morally "sublimated", precisely by the intellectual operation just performed: she is an "economic migrant", so she can be ignored; she is, secondly, physically "pushed back": these are the infamous "pushbacks" in the Mediterranean, they are the brutal reaction of a racist and amoral global North, of a Fortress Europe, which has the chutzpah to gloss over its own destruction of the rest of the world, the flood next to itself: "Flood? What flood? We're doing just fine."
Borders, walls, fences.... in the future (of the rich world), these will have to grow higher and higher, as the amount of violence, exploitation and oppression that they have to repress and sublimate, and consequently, the number of people they will have the block, keep out of sight, prevent from returning to the one place they had been summarily banished from: the forefront of our minds, our consciousness. They will be mechanisms to quite literally prevent the "return of the repressed". For what is repressed does not disappear, but always finds a way back into our minds, in "the return of the repressed," "as an expression of the tendency of the repressed to reassert itself in the form of symptoms, dreams, or failures."
The climate movement as the re-internalisation of externalized violence
If we understand "failures" to include failures to live up to ones own moral code, then we're edging closer to an understanding of the constant ignorance and increasingly frequent brutality which the climate movement is facing, at least in Germany. For "we" are the re-internalization of the externalized violence etc., let's say "costs" of our mode of production and living. We call into question the “cost-benefit-analysis criticised above, which puts the stability of our profits and everyday lives above the stability of the climate, and thus human lives everywhere in the world. Our actions are in a certain sense also just information about the escalating climate crisis; information that we hope cannot be ignored, but in this respect: we ain't seen nothing yet.
My current perspective, as you know if you follow me on Twitter, is pretty dark: if the reaction to the "return of the repressed" (in the broader sense for us: information and action re: climate crisis) is ignorance and brutality (Öffnet in neuem Fenster); then the responses to our actions will become more and more brutal, whether we escalate or not, because the climate crisis will escalate, after all, and the more it does, the higher the cost of adapting to it rises, the more we end up in the terrain of irrationality.
The price, in short, of the sublimation society, which in turn is a function, or rather, the necessary psychological superstructure of the externalisation society, is more irrationality, more ignorance, more brutality.
Welcome to the future. Welcome to the Thunderdome of Ignorance.