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Reflections on the Crisis of the Political Subject in a Warming Planet

Summer 2023 saw record-breaking temperatures, affirming the alarming trend of global warming, which even sophisticated climate models underestimated. At the same time, Latin American communities mobilized against extractivism and for environmental protection, exemplified by the #SíalYasuní campaign in Ecuador, successfully advocating to keep oil in the ground to combat climate change and protect Indigenous groups and biodiversity. Similarly, in Argentina's Jujuy province, an uprising opposed a constitutional reform threatening Indigenous communities' rights due to lithium extraction. These events underscore different aspects of the contemporary socio-ecological crisis. The author aims to contribute to discussions on radical socio-ecological change, by presenting a reflection on analytical tools from the tradition of Frankfurt School critical theory, including some contemporary formulations.

It’s official: summer 2023 (in the Northern Hemisphere) was by far the warmest summer ever recorded (Planelles and Silva 2023). This is not a coincidence, but the confirmation of a global warming trend whose pace seems to have been underestimated even by the sophisticated climate models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Just as unprecedented peak temperatures were being recorded in several cities around the world, organized communities in Latin America were mobilizing against extractivism, as well as in favour of environmental protection and the right to protest in its defence. One of these was the #SíalYasuní (Yes to Yasuní) campaign in Ecuador, part of a struggle to stop oil exploration and drilling in the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil block located within the Yasuní National Park (Rosero 2023a; YASunidos n.d.). As stated by the campaigners, avoiding oil drilling is the only sensible solution to stop climate change, to protect the Indigenous groups living in the region, and to preserve biodiversity. The campaign concluded with a referendum held on 20 August 2023, in which the majority of Ecuador’s population voted in favour of keeping the oil in the ground, forcing the dismantling of oil operations in the region within a year (Rosero 2023b). A great success, the result of this referendum must be placed in a longer-term context: ten years have gone by since the environmental organizations behind the campaign started mobilizing for the definitive halt of oil exploitation in Yasuní. Around the same time, almost 3,000 km southeast of Yasuní, in the province of Jujuy, Argentina, a popular uprising was taking place involving Indigenous communities, trade unions, and social organizations (Svampa 2023). The core of the uprising was the opposition to a provincial constitutional reform. The amendments would entail a violation of the right to protest for the communities of Jujuy, who already face the threat of dispossession of their lands. The main threat comes from lithium extraction, a key mineral for an “energy transition” whose urgent and massive implementation is presented as the only possible alternative to the fossil fuel system. This reform further undermines the communities’ capacity to resist the extractivist attack on their lands.

These episodes reveal different dimensions of the contemporary socio-ecological crisis. On the one hand, global warming has already begun to significantly disrupt both ecosystems and the ocean currents that regulate the climate on the different continents (Criado 2023). If we are to avoid the suffering, destruction, and death of human and non-human lives on unimaginable scales, stopping the extraction of fossil fuels cannot be postponed any longer. What we can take away from the organized struggle to protect the Yasuní is that this is possible, but also that we must rein in our optimism: these struggles are quantitatively very limited on a global scale, and they might take time that we no longer have. What we see in Jujuy, on the other hand, is that which is hidden by the uncritical discourse of the “energy transition”: under the apparent innocuousness of renewable energies, we recognize the unmistakable “whatever it takes” capitalist logic. This logic is sustained by authoritarian practices and deployed through the dispossession of lands for a “green” capitalism that is, unsurprisingly, fundamentally incompatible with the overcoming of the socio-ecological crisis. It feels, at times, as if the walls are closing in on us: impending crisis or impending doom, few possible pathways seem to exist, most of them have hidden traps, and none appear sufficient to escape it. How to make sense of this scenario? 

In this text, I aim to contribute to the discussion regarding the contemporary subjective conditions for radical socio-ecological change. For this, I first briefly introduce the link between the contemporary socio-ecological crisis and the capitalist mode of organization. Then I focus on what will be the centre of my argument, by presenting a discussion on analytical tools from the tradition of Frankfurt School critical theory, including some contemporary formulations. I argue that the lines of inquiry charted by this tradition are relevant for current discussions regarding the political subject during the climate crisis.

Capitalism and the Transformation of Nature

The socio-ecological crisis is rooted in a fundamentally contradictory mode of organizing social relations, and one which is necessarily sustained by relations of exploitation and domination: capitalism. The historical development of these capitalist social relations as an alienated social metabolism, which moves according to the logic of “an ever-accelerating process of production for the sake of production” (Postone 1993, 184), necessarily requires an ever-greater mobilization of matter and energy (mostly generated through the burning of fossil fuels). As the metabolism with nature is deeply and continuously transformed, socio-ecological cycles are destabilized, producing what John Bellamy Foster (1999, 2013) ⎯ following Marx ⎯ calls metabolic fractures. Depending on the severity and depth of these fractures, they can cause anything from the waning or disappearance of species to the collapse of particular ecosystems. Climate change is but a paradigmatic example of the capacity of the capitalist social metabolism to transform nature, only this time on a planetary scale. It demonstrates that the mode of organizing capitalist social relations has become a sort of geological force, capable of altering even the planetary metabolism and transforming climatic conditions that had remained relatively stable over the last 10,000 years. 

Capital has previously demonstrated the capacity to react to metabolic fractures through, for example, the development of new technologies. However, these “fixes” have not resolved the fractures, but rather have deferred them in time or displaced them to other geographies and dimensions of the global ecosystem. In a similar manner, there are attempts to mitigate the metabolic fractures associated with climate change through massive investment in “renewable” energies (wind, solar) and the electrification of transportation. These will, however, drive a spectacular increase (six times more than at present) in the extraction of minerals such as copper, lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt, and many others, with the associated environmental degradation of lands and bodies of water. Therefore, unless the socio-ecological transformations we seek move us away from the capitalist way of organizing social relations, the mere displacement of the metabolic fractures is inevitable. We require a theory and praxis that radically breaks with what is at the heart of the capitalist mode of organization: the self-valorization of value and the resulting dynamics of production for production’s sake. 

There is a rich and diverse anti-capitalist and ecological tradition of both thought and political organization, all of which attempts to enact different versions of this: to criticize and transform existing society with the intention of building world(s) governed both by the satisfaction of social needs and the sustainment of ecological balance (Löwy 2020; Foster 2023; Svampa 2022; Rátiva Gaona et al. 2023). Still, there is no consensus on the kind of politics that must be acted on in the present in order to build the desired socio-ecological mode of organization. What should collective energy and organization be directed towards? Revolution, social protest, and concrete demands for public policies (e.g. the Green New Deal), the sabotage of fossil fuel infrastructure, organized resistance to extractivist projects, prefigurative politics? 

Faced with the question of what to do, the discussion tends to be articulated in the tension between two central themes: that which is possible and that which is necessary. In a context of climate urgency, whatever can be done must be done as soon as possible. This leads to the establishment of “pre-revolutionary” strategies that aim to mitigate the disastrous consequences of living in a capitalist society on a warming planet. This may imply, for instance, resisting particular extractive projects or promoting the transformation of national economies into “green” economies. However, these types of action fall short of the severity of the situation. We are forced to reckon with the necessity of a radically alternative political and socio-ecological project (Svampa 2020), one which, as described above, represents a radical break with capitalism: anything short of that will inevitably lead to a collapse. Such a project, however, faces a “deficit of obvious candidates” (Seaton 2022). There seems to be a kind of consensus around the current lack of collective political subjects with sufficient social power and mobilization to both halt fossil fuel extraction and resist green capitalism, not to mention to dismantle the totality of the social relations that constitute capital… 

And now our argument has brought us back, apparently none the wiser, still unable to make sense of the difficulty in transcending the capitalist society that has brought us to this socio-ecological crisis. Can we still aim to do more than carry out localized resistance? Why does it sometimes seem that the possibility of an emancipatory transcendence is foreclosed? 

Capitalism and the Transformation of (Internal) Nature

We find ourselves in an enigmatic position: aware of being, as a society, on the verge of extinction, while unable to glimpse at even a remote possibility for massive global uprisings capable of stopping the machinery that is inexorably leading us to catastrophe. Possible explanations for this abound: it has been argued that this has to do with insufficient knowledge of climate change, its severity and temporality, its structural causes, or the transformations needed to stop it. Other perspectives focus on the power relations: the tremendously concentrated economic and political power of transnational and state-owned fossil fuel companies, versus the relative weakness of the affected communities that could confront them. Although important, these arguments are not enough to make sense of the “enigma of docility” (Zamora 2007) in the face of a foreseeable collapse.

It is not the first time that an enigma of this nature has intrigued those concerned with radical social transformation. In the decades following the Russian Revolution of 1917, thinkers of the European Marxist tradition tried to make sense of the “failure of the revolution in the West” (Zamora 2007, 27). How to explain that, contrary to what was expected by dominant theory ⎯ according to which the sharpening of economic contradictions would generate the conditions for revolution ⎯ revolutionary attempts in Western European countries were practically non-existent? The social conformity of dominated subjects could no longer be convincingly explained solely by the capitalist use of coercive violence or ideology (ibid.). Therefore, this demanded that Marxist theory incorporate developments from other theoretical approaches capable of elucidating the psychological and unconscious dimensions of human action. The tradition of Frankfurt School critical theory ⎯ through the work of intellectuals such as Max Horkheimer or Theodor W. Adorno ⎯ drew from Freud’s psychoanalytic theory to explore the way that social domination was extended to the psychic life of individuals. 

The Marxist concept of commodity fetishism was fundamental in this endeavour. It enabled dealing with the inverted appearance of the objective social relations within capitalist society, in which relations between people — commodity producers — appear to be relations between things — the products of their objectified labour (Marx 2022 [1873]). In such a distorted world, that which is social and the product of historical development appears to be natural and object-like (Adorno 2000 [1968]). More than subjective appearances, these are objectively necessary illusions which hide — by naturalizing it — the fundamentally antagonistic character of capitalist society. The culture industry was fundamental for the internalization of commodity fetishism. When Horkheimer and Adorno coined the concept of “the culture industry” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002 [1944]), they used it to critically refer to the mass production and consumption of cultural products (movies, radio programmes, cars, and advertisements, etc.), which constituted a totalizing framework of socialization in the Fordist United States of the 1940s and 50s (Maiso 2010). Through their consumption of cultural-industrial products, individuals were increasingly socialized to passively internalize the systematic standardization, repetition, and sameness of industrial commodity production (Prusik 2020), profoundly impoverishing their capacity for genuine life experiences. This also ultimately functioned as a compensatory mechanism, a distraction from the suffering of capitalist social life (ibid.). 

Simultaneously, other transformations in objective social relations were taking place. The emergence of a deeply technified, “potentially all-embracing” mass society meant capitalist socialization could penetrate deeper into the intimate realm of social life (Maiso 2010, 46). Previous modes of the socialization of individuals, traditionally mediated through institutions such as the family, gave way to a mode of socialization in which coercion and social imperatives come to impose themselves “directly, without mediation” (Maiso 2019, 76). Individuals were directly confronted with a strong system that increasingly monopolized the means of existence. In such a context, conformity with the existing order turned out to be the safest and most adequate option to make such a power imbalance psychologically bearable (ibid., 50). This led Horkheimer and Adorno (2002 [1944]) to posit that society could no longer be thought of in terms of the autonomous, liberal individual, but increasingly as the sum of atomized, impotent, and vulnerable “pseudo-individuals”, to whom the rest of men exist “only in estranged forms, as enemies or allies, but always as instruments, things” (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002 [1944], 49). 

Adorno and Horkheimer noted that society’s unmediated violence against the individual was not without a cost: it was paid at the price of profound internal suffering. Adapting to the social machinery required self-repression of libidinal drives (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002 [1944]). In some cases, the powerlessness felt by the weak ego in its direct confrontation with — and ultimate submission to — social coercion could be compensated by the pleasure that came with identification with a powerful entity (be it an authoritarian government or other forms of collective super-ego) (Robles 2020, 2021). This psychological mechanism of identification with authority gives an (often misplaced) sense of security (ibid.) Perceived threats to this precarious security easily turn into acts of aggression towards an external, usually weaker scapegoat (Jews, women, migrants, etc.), as it is difficult for the weak ego to direct its accumulated repressed aggressive drives against those who actually exercise power and authority over it (Zamora 2013). It is through these socio-psychological mechanisms that authoritarianism, anti-Semitism, fascism, racism, nationalism, or misogyny were already prefigured as latent phenomena in capitalist society. 

Neoliberal Conditions of Capitalist Socialization

We are living in a different historical moment than that experienced by Horkheimer and Adorno. Profound transformations of work and culture, among other things, herald profound transformations in subjectivation. Socialization is increasingly mediated through impersonal digital networks, which represent an intensified conditioning by commodity fetishism. Individuals are no longer passive recipients of mass produced industrial-cultural products. Consumption under neoliberalism, mediated by the digital world, requires active, flexible, and adaptative participation (through the use of smartphones, video games and virtual reality devices, content creation on social media, etc.) thereby deepening the transformation of the very structure of experience (Prusik 2020). Horkheimer and Adorno (2002 [1944]) already postulated the demise of the autonomous, liberal individual in the form of atomized “pseudo-individuals”. It could be argued that individuality is today further liquidated, ironically, under a veil of individualism: the “compulsory need to stand out” and broadcast one’s singularity in the virtual space may be only a sign of the heightened grip that the social totality holds on the production of the self (Prusik 2020, 155). 

Subjective transformations are intensified by post-Fordist changes in the patterns of socialization in the work sphere. Being “willing” to sell one’s labour power is no longer sufficient. The mobilization of the cognitive, creative, communicative, and affective skills of the individuals becomes a capitalist imperative in the new organization of work (Zamora 2013). The whole of the person becomes a potential reservoir for heightened productivity, encouraging individuals to relate to their own selves according to the market competitiveness of their particular subjective qualities (Demirovic 2013). This requires the worker to showcase levels of individuality and authenticity which they increasingly are incapable of providing, as they fade into insignificance when faced with the very objective social relations that demand them. Furthermore, in the context of a precarious job market with diminishing employment opportunities, the entrepreneurial relation to oneself is likely to end in recurring failures to successfully sell one’s subjective abilities in such a way that it guarantees a decent living (ibid.). Heightened demands for adaptation collide with the impossibility of its realization, giving way to increasingly generalized burnout syndromes, extenuation, and depression (Zamora 2013). As the imbalance of power between the precarious individual and the social totality intensifies, the wider process of reification further extends social domination by commodity fetishism to the psychic life of individuals. What could be the implications for our collective capacity to act and transform? 

Closing Remarks

Socialization of individuals today is no longer that of an all-embracing mass society held together by the promise of social security and integration (which could only truly materialize in the core countries of the global capitalist system), as originally described by the Frankfurt School tradition. Our contemporary reality is instead “radically insecure” (Gandesha 2018): extreme precarity of living conditions coincides with the possibility of planetary collapse. The unfolding of capitalist social relations has resulted, on the one hand, in the intensification of the transformation of external nature at a planetary scale, but also the transformation of what we could call the “internal nature” of people or the constitution of their subjectivity. This has implications for the ways in which the socio-ecological crisis can be experienced, “processed” and acted upon by contemporary subjects, at a time when a radical socio-ecological transformation is indispensable. 

While the subjective conditions for revolution are not immediately apprehensible, organized resistance in the face of social and environmental devastation — as manifested in the #SíalYasuní and the popular uprising in Jujuy — exists, and sometimes even wins. Yet, the danger is still latent that the climate crisis will, nevertheless, strengthen the subjective conditions for authoritarianism or other reactionary forms of politicization. The subject socialized under neoliberal conditions is weaker, atomized, and more exhausted than ever. Can we, under these conditions, still build on localized struggles in such a way that it translates into a sufficiently large and powerful social mobilization able to build the indispensable radical socio-ecological transformation? In this text, I have attempted to argue that the rich tradition of Frankfurt School critical theory (including its contemporary formulations) — although it cannot give a direct, practical, and unequivocal answer to such a necessary question — can help us navigate the enigmas of subjectivity in contemporary capitalism and enrich the reflection on the urgent and necessary socio-ecological transformation from the perspective of its subjective conditions of possibility.


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