“Earth” by Rabindranath Tagore

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Accept my homage, Earth, as I make my last obeisance of the day,
Bowed at the altar of the setting sun.

You are mighty, and knowable only by the mighty;
You counterpoise charm and severity;
Compounded of male and female
You sway human life with unbearable conflict.
The cup that your right hand fills with nectar
Is smashed by your left;
Your playground rings with your mocking laughter.
You make heroism hard to attain;
You make excellence costly;
You are not merciful to those who deserve mercy.
Ceaseless warfare is hidden in your plants:
Their crops and fruits are victory-wreaths won from struggle.
Land and sea are your cruel battlefields –
Life proclaims its triumph in the face of death.
Civilization rests its foundation upon your cruelty:
Ruin is the penalty exacted for any shortcoming.

In the first chapter of your history Demons were supreme –
Harsh, barbaric, brutish;
Their clumsy thick fingers lacked art;
With clubs and mallets in hand they rioted over sea and mountain.
Their fire and smoke churned sky into nightmare;
They controlled the inanimate world;
They had blind hatred of Life.

Gods came next; by their spells they subdued the Demons –
The insolence of Matter was crushed.
Mother Earth spread out her green mantle;
On the eastern peaks stood Dawn;
On the western sea-shore Evening descended,
Dispensing peace from her chalice.

The shackled Demons were humbled;
But primal barbarity has kept its grip on your history.
It can suddenly invade order with anarchy –
From the dark recesses of your being
It can suddenly emerge like a snake.
Its madness is in your blood.
The spells of the Gods resound through sky and air and forest,
Sung solemnly day and night, high and low;
But from regions under your surface
Sometimes half-tame Demons raise their serpent-hoods –
They goad you into wounding your own creatures,
Into ruining your own creation.

At your footstool mounted on evil as well as good,
To your vast and terrifying beauty,
I offer today my scarred life’s homage.
I touch your huge buried store of life and death,
Feel it throughout my body and mind.
The corpses of numberless generations of men lie heaped in your dust:
I too shall add a few fistfuls, the final measure of my joys and pains:
Add them to that name-absorbing, shape-absorbing, fame-absorbing
Silent pile of dust.

Earth, clamped into rock or flitting into the clouds;
Rapt in meditation in the silence of a ring of mountains
Or noisy with the roar of sleepless sea-waves;
You are beauty and abundance, terror and famine.
On the one hand, acres of crops, bent with ripeness,
Brushed free of dew each morning by delicate sunbeams –
With sunset, too, sending through their rippling greenness
Joy, joy;
On the other, in your dry, barren, sickly deserts
The dance of ghosts amid strewn animal-bones.

I have watched your Baiśākh-storms swoop like black hawks
Ripping the horizon with lightning-beaks:
The whole sky roars like a rampant lion,
Lashing tail whipping up trees
Till they crash to the ground in despair;
Thatched roofs break loose,
Race before the wind like convicts from their chains.

But I have known, in Phālgun, the warm south breeze
Spread all the rhapsodies and soliloquies of love
In its scent of mango-blossom;
Seen the foaming wine of heaven overflow from the moon’s goblet;
Heard coppices suddenly submit to wind’s importunity
And burst into breathless rustling.

You are gentle and fierce, ancient and renewing;
You emerged from the sacrificial fire of primal creation
Immeasurably long ago.
Your cyclic pilgrimage is littered with meaningless remnants of history;
You abandon your creations without regret; strew them layer upon layer,
Forgotten.

Guardian of Life, you nurture us
In little cages of fragmented time,
Boundaries to all our games, limits to all renown.

Today I stand before you without illusion:
I do not ask at your door for immortality
For the many days and nights I have spent weaving you garlands.
But if I have given true value
To my small seat in a tiny segment of one of the eras
That open and close like blinks in the millions of years
Of your solar round;
If I have won from the trials of life a scrap of success;
Then mark my brow with a sign made from your clay –
To be rubbed out in time by the night
In which all signs fade into the final unknown.

O aloof, ruthless Earth,
Before I am utterly forgotten
Let me place my homage at your feet.

 

From: “Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems” (Penguin Books, 1985: 99-101)

‘All that is solid melts into air’: the dialectical nature of our world

Let’s begin with Marx and Engels from The Communist Manifesto (published in 1848):

“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man [sic] is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.”

For me dialectics is a way of seeing and thinking about the world. The world around me is in perpetual flux. The world is in constant movement. What’s more, this locomotion is ridden with contradictory tensions, and it is the very friction of these tensions that fuels ongoing change. Dialectical thinking is that which is attuned to contradictory motion and imminent potentialities. All that is solid melts into air.

Remarkably, the language used by Marx and Engels in 1848 to depict and predict world developments chimes well with the contemporary discourse of ‘globalisation’. If we take this above passage from The Communist Manifesto and hold it up to the present-day, we can see a battle between, on the one hand, a desire for certainty and the satisfaction of old wants, fixed, fast-frozen relations, and local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, and, on the other hand, a desire for the best of all that is solid which melts into air: a willing acceptance of uncertainty that comes with openness to new wants and experiences, intercourse in every direction, connections everywhere, universal interdependence, and a cosmopolitan world.

Let’s end then with one aspect – from the Lord Ashcroft Polls – of how and why people voted the way that they did in the 2016 UK referendum on European Union membership.

Everyday life as illusion and truth, power and helplessness

Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) was an urban sociologist and French Marxist philosopher who theorised on the production of urban space, the right to the city, and the nature of everyday life. The below quote is from the Foreword of his book Critique of Everyday Life (Volume 1) in which he identifies the key feature of everyday life as ambiguity and contradiction:

“There, before us, lies a child, a casualty, or a corpse; a marriage, a life together to organize or to disrupt, a place to live to be found; suffering to endure or avoid – pleasure to enjoy or spoil; a decision to hazard and accept with all its consequences (and this without adequate information, or having lost information en route, etc.). Uncertainty is not without its charm or interest; it can never last long. It maintains ambiguity, keeping what is possible in a state of possibility, allowing us to take our pleasure in what Valery called the whorehouse of possibilities; it can even oscillate between the comical and the dramatic, but we must choose. We weigh the pros and the cons, but there is no telling when something new on one side of the scales will come to outweigh the other. So decisions may ripen like fruit on a tree, but they never fall of their own accord; we must always cut the stem, we must even choose the moment of choice… Hence the infinitely complex, profound and contradictory character of life is given an element which is always new, and which is indeed constantly being renewed by knowledge.

To put it more clearly or more abstractly, ambiguity is a category of everyday life, and perhaps an essential category. It never exhausts its reality; from the ambiguity of consciousnesses and situations spring forth actions, events, results, without warning. These, at least, have clear-cut outlines. They maintain a hard, incisive objectivity which constantly disperses the luminous vapours of ambiguity – only to let them rise once again.

Philosophers and psychologists have confused the issue by sometimes attributing this ‘being-there’ of results to consciousness or being, rather than to actions and decisions, and sometimes attributing ambiguity to philosophically defined existence rather than to the everyday as such.

Feelings and desires can hardly choose. They would like to choose, they would like not to choose, to possess incompatibles all at the same time: several skills, several possibilities, several futures, several loves. Practically, the requirement to act and to make decisions imposes choice. But to choose is to make a judgement. We have no knowledge of the human actions which go on around us; they escape us just as our own selves escape us. And yet we must make judgements. And even before or after the epic moment of decision or action, we must go on making ever more and more judgements. It is the only solid ground, the only unchanging requirement amid all life’s ups and downs, its one axis. Such are the varied aspects of the everyday: fluctuations beneath stable masks and appearances of stability, the need to make judgements and decisions. But nothing is as difficult and as dangerous as making judgements. ‘Judge not.’ From the very beginnings of social life, men [sic] have been obsessed by the function of the Judge, and the powerful fight among themselves to exercise it. The Judge pronounces, makes irrevocable decisions according to the law as it stands, or in the court of appeal. He must embody justice, or Law, or the force of Truth. God passes for supreme judge, and the myth of the Last Judgement is a mighty image, the most striking in the most elaborate of all religions. The human masses sustain this great hope: the Judge will come. For ordinary men, every one of the innumerable little judgements required in life implies a risk and a wager. We are so used to making mistakes about our fellow man that good sense tells us to be wary of passing judgement, disapproves of hasty verdicts, and, quite rightly, denounces prejudice. As a result we find it easier to judge a global society than to judge men. Every capitalist is a man; within him, up to a point, the man and the capitalist are in conflict. Extreme cases – the capitalist who is the complete incarnation of money and capital – are rare. Generally, there are two or more contradictory spirits living inside the capitalist (in particular, as Marx noted, the coexisting needs of enjoyment and accumulation tear him apart). It is therefore both easier and more equitable to condemn a society than to condemn a man.

Brecht perceived the epic content of everyday life superbly: the hardness of actions and events, the necessity of judging. To this he added an acute awareness of the alienation to be found in this same everyday life. To see people properly we need to place them at a reasonable, well-judged distance, like the objects we see before us. Then their many-sided strangeness becomes apparent: in relation to ourselves, but also within themselves and in relation to themselves. In this strangeness lies their truth, the truth of their alienation. It is then that consciousness of alienation – that strange awareness of the strange – liberates us, or begins to liberate us, from alienation. This is the truth. And at the moment of truth we are suddenly disorientated by others and by ourselves. To look at things from an alien standpoint – externally and from a reasonable distance – is to look at things truly. But this strange and alien way of looking at things, disorientated but true, is the way children, peasants, women of the people, naive and simple folk look. And they are afraid of what they see. For this many-sided alienation is no joke. We live in a world in which the best becomes the worst; where nothing is more dangerous than heroes and great men; where everything including freedom (even though it is not a thing) and revolt, changes into its own opposite.

[…]

Brecht’s epic theatre […] starts from a ‘commonplace’, it is the opposite of the classical ‘koinon’, and is taken from the everyday. He starts from disagreement, divergence, distortion. The play – or the scene – poses a complete problem which has not been resolved in advance, and which is consequently irritating, embarrassing. To begin with, Brecht confronts the spectator with an action or an event […]. He leaves the spectator in a (for him) disturbing externality. Instead of making him participate in an action or with defined ‘characters’, the stage action liberates him: it ‘arouses his capacity for action, forces him to make decisions … he is made to face something (by) argument’. Called upon to make a judgement, obliged to come to a decision, the audience hesitates. And in this way the action is transferred to within the spectator. Without being aware of it, and although everything is clearly happening in full view, the spectator becomes the living consciousness of the contradictions of the real.

And is it really accurate to say that this theatre excludes emotion? It excludes emotion of a magical nature, the kind that allows or implies participation and identification. But maybe Brecht’s theatre is aiming to bring forth new forms of emotion and images by actually ridding them of whatever magic the imagination has retained. If this were not the case, if Brecht’s theatre were restricted merely to evoking states of mind, this is where it would come up against its own limitations, and fairly severe limitations they would be. As it happens, it provides a model for art liberated from magic. And that is a great innovation. Brecht unravels the contradictions of everyday life and liberates us from them. For magic plays an immense role in everyday life, be it in emotional identification and participation with ‘other people’ or in the thousand little rituals and gestures used by every person, every family, every group. But in practical life as in ideology, this magic only signifies the illusions men [sic] have about themselves, and their lack of power. And everyday life is defined by contradictions: illusion and truth, power and helplessness, the intersection of the sector man controls and the sector he does not control.” (Lefebvre, 1958 [1991]: 18-21)

Trans activists versus radical feminists: abandonment of freedom for ‘ressentiment’

The following is a full recording of and written extracts from my book chapter, “On Identity Politics, Ressentiment, and the Evacuation of Human Emancipation”, in Nocella and Juergensmeyer (eds.) Fighting Academic Repression and Neoliberal Education (Peter Lang Publishing).

My chapter and its podcast examine a neoliberal wave of identity politics in the form of intersectionality and privilege theory. I argue that it is a repression of self by self, which precludes connection, bypasses freedom, and generates ressentiment. I explore a specific case study of the political deadlock between a current of radical feminists and a current of transgender and transsexual activists, which has played out on social media and across university campuses.

Freedom has become dangerously lost in the contradiction of identity politics. As Brown (1995: 65) observes:

“politicized identities generated out of liberal, disciplinary societies, insofar as they are premised on exclusion from a universal ideal, require that ideal, as well as their exclusion from it, for their own continuing existence as identities.”

Brown (1995: 66) develops Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment to explain how the desired impulse of politicized identity to “inscribe in the law and other political registers its historical and present pain” forecloses “an imagined future of power to make itself”. What one has instead of freedom then is the production of ressentiment:

Ressentiment in this context is a triple achievement: it produces an affect (rage, righteousness) that overwhelms the hurt; it produces a culprit responsible for the hurt; and it produces a site of revenge to displace the hurt (a place to inflict hurt as the sufferer has been hurt).” (Brown, 1995: 68)

We are left with an effort to anaesthetize and to externalize what is unendurable.

The radical feminist and trans activist deadlock is the privilege production of impasse, and a symptom of acute political distress in which freedom has been abandoned for ressentiment.

The chasm Marx identifies between human beings as, on the one hand, citizens of a universal political community and, on the other hand, private, alienated, egoistic individuals of a civil society, is reflected in the contradiction of a neoliberal wave of identity politics considered and critiqued in my chapter and its podcast.

Our journey back to the dream of freedom requires us making a case for supplanting a politics of “I am” – which closes down identity, and fixes it within a social and moral hierarchy – with a politics of “I want this for us” (Brown, 1995: 75 [my emphasis]). If we fail to help make this happen, we will remain locked in a history that has “weight but no trajectory, mass but no coherence, force but no direction,” thus stagnated in a “war without ends or end” (Brown, 1995: 71).

(See also my earlier blog post, The evacuation of human emancipation, identity politics, and ‘ressentiment’)

My epiphany was jazz – that life is jazz

I’m reminded of the Daily Mash post, “Woman ends 20-year attempt to like jazz”, and feel relieved that my two decade journey ended differently. My lazy critique of jazz went along the lines of, ‘I like a beginning, middle and end’ and ‘when does the tune start?’ My bodily experience of jazz was irritation. Jazz to me was pretentious and impenetrable. I just didn’t get it. Yes, I was over-thinking it.

Jazz is freedom: freedom to flow in any direction, freedom to improvise, freedom to create, freedom to play. Jazz is unpredictable – where is this going? – and when one drops into this, it is remarkable to experience; jazz pulls you through several emotions, some of which are joyful. What caused my jazz epiphany? A deeper and wider epiphany, that life is jazz and to live life means being open to its sometimes excruciating and sometimes serene twists and turns. Further still, at its best, jazz reflects an individual-collective dialectic of emotional, intellectual and political progress:

“To be a jazz freedom fighter is to attempt to galvanize and energize world-weary people into forms of organization with accountable leadership that promote critical exchange and broad reflection. The interplay of individuality and unity is not one of uniformity and unanimity imposed from above but rather of conflict among diverse groupings that reach a dynamic consensus subject to questioning and criticism. As with a soloist in a jazz quartet, quintet or band, individuality is promoted in order to sustain and increase the creative tension with the group – a tension that yields higher levels of performance to achieve the aim of the collective project.” (Cornel West, Race Matters, 1993: 105)

Looking backing now, my delight at the improvisations of the Dave Matthews Band live meant I was always already partially there vis-à-vis jazz, but the track below by the American composer and clarinetist Shankar Tucker was what cemented that realisation.

As a jazz novice, it’s been about Indo-jazz: the synthesis between classical and traditional Indian music and jazz. Below is my YouTube playlist – “Tour de Indo-Jazz” – which chronologically reviews some of the most interesting Indo-jazz tracks/albums from the 1960s to 1990s, featuring: the late Indian composer John Mayer; the late Jamaican jazz composer, musician and saxophonist Joe Harriott; English composer and guitarist John McLaughlin; Indian-born American composer and violinist Lakshminarayana Shankar; Indian composer and tabla player Zakir Hussain; Grammy-award winning Indian percussionist Vikku Vinayakram; Norwegian jazz composer and saxophonist Jan Garbarek; Indian composer and percussionist Trilok Gurtu; Indian classical flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia; and the late Pakistani Khyal vocalist Ustad Bade Fateh Ali Khan.

If you haven’t got there already, I hope you enjoy your jazz epiphany soon. 😉 My thanks to comrades Bruce Robinson and Richard White for patiently waiting on my arrival.

From Capitalocene to Biophilia: a rallying call for ecological sovereignty

Extract from: James Connolly’s “We Only Want the Earth” (1907)

Iceland, Geography, and Biophilia

My child-like excitement for an impending university geography field trip to Iceland has led me to exploring the concept of biophilia. The distinct lure of Iceland feels like a spiritual calling to the wonder and beauty of the natural world. My excitement reminds me of the draw to studying geography: a love of the world in its full human and natural dimensions. Mine is a spiritual and political love that deplores inequality and poverty, injustice, exploitation of humans and the environment, despoliation and mindless plunder, and the ultimate betrayal of our custodianship of planet Earth, otherwise known as the potentially catastrophic era of the Anthropocene. Specifically, mine is a love for what the human species, all living beings, and our shared home of Earth could be and should be, against the harm wrought to us all by capitalism. My imminent visit to Iceland is a rekindling of my original love for geography and a journey into the meaning of biophilia. This journey starts with Icelander Björk’s album “Biophilia” and proceeds to the writings of Edward O. Wilson and Erich Fromm.

Björk’s album “Biophilia”, released in 2011, was the outcome of what had been happening in Iceland during that time, from the financial crisis to an environmental movement against the building of five aluminium factories: “on so many different levels”, she says, “there was this message that all the old system don’t work anymore, you’ve got to clear your table and start from scratch” (Björk 2011a). The album is “about connecting the dots, it’s not so much about that each thing is original, it’s more about building bridges between things that haven’t had bridges between them before, like nature and technology, and like atoms and the galaxy” (Björk 2011b). In one sense, Björk’s “Biophilia” is a product of what geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (1972) termed topophilia, our affective bond to place which is born from our experiences and circumstances: “being brought up in Iceland I have always had a relationship with nature, before I even knew that that’s not common, living in a capital in Europe but you’re still surrounded by mountains and ocean”; while walking to and from school, “I started mapping out my melodies to landscapes”; at music school from aged five to fifteen, “I was being introduced to the classical canon, Beethoven and Bach, and finding some of it interesting but a lot of it not really matching my own strong experience […] and also being a girl in the 70s in Iceland, I mean this was like for girls in Germany in the 1700s! I wanted musicology for girls, Icelandic girls in the twentieth century” (Björk 2011b).

The word biophilia is commonly attributed to the biologist Edward O. Wilson, namely, to his book Biophilia published in 1984, which was followed by an edited collection titled The Biophilia Hypothesis (1993). For Wilson (1993: 31), biophilia “is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms”. He makes the case for a hereditary biophilia that has developed through gene-culture coevolution, and calls upon psychologists and other academics to urgently investigate, in the context of the natural environment, what “will happen to the human psyche when such a defining part of the human evolutionary experience is diminished or erased” (Wilson, 1993: 35). Wilson’s (1993: 38-39) biophilia is a central part of a new environmental ethics, which, while acknowledging the utilitarian potential and material value of wild species, pleas for consideration of “the hereditary needs of our own species” in which the biodiversity of life has “immense aesthetic and spiritual value”. In The Biophilia Hypothesis, the environmentalist scholar David W. Orr offers a more radical agenda, calling for a biophilia revolution. On closer examination, his revolution is an incremental set of demands with a left-tinged anti-globalisation, localism, and patriotism, which cuts against a sense of biophilia as a global relationship to humankind and planet Earth; indeed, he confesses, “I do not know whether it is possible to love the planet or not” (Orr, 1993: 432).

The Earth’s Eastern Hemisphere (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the popular association of biophilia with Edward O. Wilson, it was in fact the humanistic Marxist philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980) who first introduced the term, explicitly in The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil (1964) and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), and implicitly in The Sane Society (1956) and Marx’s Concept of Man (1961). Like Wilson, Fromm considers biophilia – the love of life – as having a biological grounding, specifically, as an innate tendency in all living beings to preserve life and to fight death. But for Fromm, biophilia is also more than this, it is an innate tendency to integrate and to unite; or, to paraphrase Björk, to build bridges. Unlike Wilson, Fromm’s basis for studying biophilia is not biology but the conditions of existence that shape human beings as fundamentally social beings and the capitalist conditions of existence that estrange us from this basic need for connection.

Before I embark into the world of Fromm’s biophilia, which, I argue, offers us a critical theoretical basis for a rallying call for ecological sovereignty, I contextualise this call within a particular framing of the ecological crisis of the twenty-first century.

 

Anthropocene versus Capitalocene

The Anthropocene (from the Greek work “anthropos” meaning human being) is the term designated to the thesis that human activity has tipped the Earth into a new geological age. On the present vogue of the Anthropocene, Benjamin Kunkel (2017: 22-23) writes:

“It expresses […] an awareness that environmental change of the most durable significance is taking place as we speak, with unaccustomed speed. (Little besides a giant asteroid or a nuclear war could alter the surface of the earth faster and more completely.) […] the Anthropocene condenses ‘into a single word’, as Davies says, ‘a gripping and intuitive story about human influences on the planet’. It designates a contemporary situation in which humanity, accidentally or deliberately, engineers the planet’s condition, and then sets this present moment in a span of time stretching decades, centuries or millennia into past and future. […] What was once true about the now passé term ‘postmodernism’ is true for the Anthropocene today: it names an effort to consider the contemporary world historically, in an age that otherwise struggles with its attention span.”

While intended as a rallying call, Kunkel (2017: 23) identifies arguments that the Anthropocene is also “a watchword of despair”. Reviewing Jason Moore’s (2015) Capitalism in the Web of Life and Andreas Malm’s (2015) Fossil Capital, he summates their critiques of the Anthropocene and Moore’s alternative thesis of the Capitalocene:

“Its defect, as Moore sees it, is to present humanity as a ‘homogenous acting unit’, when in fact human beings are never to be found in a generic state. They exist only in particular historical forms of society, defined by distinct regimes of social property relations that imply different dispositions towards ‘extra-human nature’. […] Moore proposes that the Anthropocene be renamed the ‘Capitalocene’, since ‘the rise of capitalism after 1450 marked a turning point in the history of humanity’s relation with the rest of nature, greater than any watershed since the rise of agriculture.’ Malm […] locates the headwaters of the present ecological crisis several centuries later, in the global warming set off by coal-burning industrialisation. He complains that in ‘the Anthropocene narrative’, climate change is ‘relocated from the sphere of natural causes to that of human activities’ only to be ‘renaturalised’ a moment later as the excrescence of ‘an innate human trait’. […] ‘Capitalism in a small corner of the Western world invested in steam, laying the foundation of the fossil economy; at no moment did the species…exercise any sort of shared authority over its own destiny and that of the earth system.’ Nor in the time since has the species en bloc become ecologically sovereign: ‘In the early 21st century, the poorest 45 per cent of humanity generated 7 per cent of CO2 emissions, while the richest 7 per cent produced 50 per cent.’ For Malm and Moore, capitalism must be recognised as the overriding determinant of humanity’s recent ecological career if the present era of natural history is to become a useful object of analysis, not merely of handwringing.” (Kunkel, 2017: 23)

The Earth’s Western Hemisphere (Wikimedia Commons)

As I will go on to illustrate, Fromm’s concept of biophilia is grounded in a comprehension of capitalist social relations in which humanity is neither individually autonomous nor a sovereign political bloc but is instead removed from its social relationship to other living beings and to nature. Moreover, for Fromm, there is nothing natural about the antithesis of biophilia; as such, there is no inherent human trait underpinning capitalism that has led us into the Anthropocene. Vis-à-vis the ecological crisis of the twenty-first century, Fromm’s distinctly socialist biophilia is an urgently needed rallying cry against the Capitalocene.

 

Fromm’s socialist Biophilia

“Socialism for Marx was, as Paul Tillich put it, “a resistance movement against the destruction of love in social reality.”” (Fromm, 1961: 59)

Erich Fromm, 1974 (Wikimedia Commons)

 

i. Social beings, total beings, and productive life

For Fromm, it is a fundamental human need to connect with living beings:

“The necessity to unite with other living beings, to be related to them, is an imperative need on the fulfilment of which [our] sanity depends. This need is behind all phenomena which constitute the whole gamut of intimate human relations, of all passions which are called love in the broadest sense of the word.” (Fromm, 1956: 30)

Furthermore, as humans we search for meaning to our existence and desire transcendence: all our “passions and strivings […] are attempts to find an answer to [our] existence” (Fromm, 1956: 29). In this respect we are faced with two conflicting tendencies, to love and to create, and/or to hate and to destroy:

“Creation and destruction, love and hate, are not two instincts which exist independently. They are both answers to the same need for transcendence, and the will to destroy must rise when the will to create cannot be satisfied. However, the satisfaction of the need to create leads to happiness; destructiveness to suffering […].” (Fromm, 1956: 38)

This need for relatedness and transcendence has no “physiological substrata” but rather is based on our primary driver as a species-being, the human situation: “the total human personality in its interaction with the world, nature and [human beings]; it is the human practice of life as it results from the conditions of human existence” (Fromm, 1956: 70).

Fromm recognises that our spiritual health flourishes when our conditions of existence provide ‘freedom to’, not simply ‘freedom from’. This freedom to allows for the total human personality to grow, as based on our relation to each other, the world, and oneself. Here he draws upon Marx’s notion of ‘total man’ [sic]: whose “independence and freedom” are founded on “the act of self-creation”, which is achieved when our individuality is affirmed and expressed in each of our relations to the world, that is, quoting Marx, “seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, willing, loving” (Fromm, 1961: 37-38). Fromm (1961: 38) sees Marx’s goal of socialism – the emancipation of human beings – as our “self-realization in the process of productive relatedness and oneness with [humans] and nature”. For Marx (alongside Spinoza, Goethe, and Hegel), he explains, humans are “alive” inasmuch as we are “productive”, grasping the world outside of ourselves in the act of affirming and expressing our total being; inasmuch as we are “not productive”, i.e., “receptive and passive”, we are “nothing”, we are “dead” (Fromm, 1961: 29-30). Fromm (1961: 30) contextualises this concept of productivity – as opposed to receptivity – within Marx’s understanding of “the phenomenon of love”:

““Let us assume man to be man [sic],” [Marx] wrote, “and his relation to the world to be a human one. Then love can only be exchanged for love, trust for trust, etc. If you wish to influence other people you must be a person who really has a stimulating and encouraging effect upon others. Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life. If you love without evoking love in return, i.e., if you are not able, by the manifestation of yourself as a loving person, to make yourself a beloved person, then your love is impotent and a misfortune.””

Love, for Fromm (1956: 32), is a crucial aspect of “the productive orientation: the active and creative relatedness” of humans to their fellow humans and to nature:

“In the realm of thought, this productive orientation is expressed in the proper grasp of the world by reason. In the realm of action, the productive orientation is expressed in productive work, the prototype of which is art and craftsmanship. In the realm of feeling, the productive orientation is expressed in love, which is the experience of union with another person, with all [humans], and with nature, under the condition of retaining one’s sense of integrity and independence.”

Productive love reflects a set of attitudes, “that of care, responsibility, respect and knowledge” (Fromm, 1956: 33). Productive love, as part of the orientation of productive life, is the gem of Fromm’s conceptualisation of biophilia.

 

ii. Insane capitalism: alienation as death

For Fromm (1956: 94-95), capitalism tends towards insanity because it generates a world in which capital, “dead past”, is placed higher than labour, present “living vitality”:

“The conflict between capital and labor is much more than the conflict between two classes, more than their fight for a greater share of the social product. It is the conflict between two principles of value: that between the world of things, and their amassment, and the world of life and its productivity.”

It is worth noting here that Fromm’s (1956: 6) identification and exploration of the “pathology of normalcy”, specifically, the pathology of capitalism, made his work a timely radical alternative to that of Sigmund Freud:

“Freud’s concept of human nature as being essentially competitive (and asocial) is the same as we find it in most authors who believe that the characteristics of man [sic] in modern Capitalism are his natural characteristics. […] His basic concept is that of a “homo sexualis” as that of the economists was that of the “homo economicus.” Both the “economic” man and the “sexual” man are convenient fabrications whose alleged nature – isolated, asocial, greedy and competitive – makes Capitalism appear as the system which corresponds perfectly to human nature, and places it beyond the reach of criticism.” (Fromm, 1956: 76-77)

The basic problem of capitalism, Fromm (1961: 43) argues, is “the negation of productivity: alienation”. Capitalist social relations distort the labour of productive life – that is, meaningful and enjoyable self-expression – into labour which is forced, meaningless, and alienated from us. This alienation (or estrangement) means that we do not experience ourselves as active agents; “the world (nature, others, and [oneself]) remain alien to” us, standing above and against us “as objects” (including those of our own creation) (Fromm, 1961: 44). In brief, alienation, as “essentially experiencing the world and oneself passively, receptively” (Fromm, 1961: 44), is dehumanisation and death.

The consequence of capitalist alienation for life in general is the loss of the human dimension through abstractification and quantification:

“This abstractification takes place even with regard to phenomena which are not commodities sold on the market, like a flood disaster; the newspapers will headline a flood, speaking of a “million-dollar catastrophe,” emphasizing the abstract quantitative element rather than the concrete aspects of human suffering. […] It is an expression of the same attitude when a newspaper headlines an obituary with the words “Shoe Manufacturer Dies.” Actually a man has died, a man with certain human qualities, with hopes and frustrations […].” (Fromm, 1956: 116)

Contrary to productive love as biophilia, capitalist alienation fosters the indifference to life and even the attraction of death:

“We speak of millions of people being killed, of one third or more of our population being wiped out if a third World War should occur; we speak of billions of dollars piling up as a national debt […]. Tens of thousands work in one enterprise, hundreds of thousands live in hundreds of cities. The dimensions with which we deal are figures and abstractions; they are far beyond the boundaries which would permit of any kind of concrete experience. There is no frame of reference left which is manageable, observable, which is adapted to human dimensions. While our eyes and ears receive impressions only in humanly manageable proportions, our concept of the world has lost just that quality; it does not any longer correspond to our human dimension. This is especially significant in connection with the development of modern means of destruction. In modern war, one individual can cause the destruction of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. He [sic] could do so by pushing a button; he may not feel the emotional impact of what he is doing, since he does not see, does not know the people whom he kills; it is almost as if his act of pushing the button and their death had no real connection.” (Fromm, 1956: 119)

In our present moment, in which the president of the most powerful country on Earth denies the existence of climate change, Right-wing reactionary nationalisms are on the ascent worldwide, experts are ridiculed and ignorance is celebrated as non-elitist, and fake news is all the rage, Fromm’s (1956: 120) words take on a renewed sobering significance:

“Science, business, politics, have lost all foundations and proportions which make sense humanly. We live in figures and abstractions; since nothing is concrete, nothing is real. Everything is possible, factually and morally.”

 

iii. Insane capitalism: nationalism as idolatrous worship

“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.” (Donald Trump, 2017)

“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” (Theresa May, 2016)

“Now, the dividing line is not between left and right but globalists and patriots.” (Marine Le Pen, 2015)

Fromm (1956: 58-59) insists that the person who has not “freed” oneself “from the ties to blood and soil is not yet fully born as a human being”, since their “capacity for love and reason” is debilitated:

“Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. “Patriotism” is its cult. It should hardly be necessary to say, that by “patriotism” I mean that attitude which puts [one’s] own nation above humanity, above the principles of truth and justice; not the loving interest in one’s own nation, which is the concern with the nation’s spiritual as much as with its material welfare – never with its power over other nations. Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.”

For Fromm, it is only when we succeed in fully developing our love and reason (moving from ‘freedom from’ to ‘freedom to’) that we can create a world based on solidarity and justice, that we can feel rooted in a universal comradeship. What’s more, the ecological survival of planet Earth depends on such a biophilic reclamation of globalisation – a rooted connection to ourselves, other living beings, nature, and the world.

 

iv. The socialist struggle for Biophilia

“The whole life of the individual is nothing but the process of giving birth to [one]self; indeed, we should be fully born, when we die – although it is the tragic fate of most individuals to die before they are born.” (Fromm, 1956: 26)

Fromm defines biophilia as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive; it is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group” (Fromm, 1973: 485). The tendency “to preserve life and to fight against death” is the most elementary form of biophilia, and is common to all living beings; the more positive aspect of biophilia is the tendency of all living substance:

“to integrate and to unite; […] to fuse with different and opposite entities, and to grow in a structured way. Unification and integrated growth are characteristic of all life processes, not only as far as cells are concerned, but also with regard to feeling and thinking.” (Fromm, 1964: 45-46)

The “person who fully loves life is attracted by the processes of life and growth in all spheres”, preferring “to construct rather than to retain”, “capable of wondering”, loving “the adventure of living” more than certainty, seeing “the whole rather than only the parts”, and wanting “to mold and to influence by love, reason, […] not by force, by cutting things apart” (Fromm, 1964: 47). In dialectical tension with biophilia is necrophilia, the love of death. When life becomes about things, when one is engrossed with having rather than being, when one is obsessed with possession and control, when one is oriented to the past rather than to the present and future, desiring certainty when the only certainty in life is death, then a necrophilous orientation develops (Fromm, 1964). Contrary to Fromm’s dialectic of the biophilous and necrophilous orientations is Freud’s idea of the life instinct (Eros) and the death instinct. This, for Fromm (1964, 1973), is wrong, since both are not biologically given and equally ranked. Biophilia is the normal impulse for living beings, whereas necrophilia is the result of a life unlived.

Most societies fuel conditions of existence for both our creative and destructive tendencies, just as most people are a combination of biophilous and necrophilous orientations – the question is which wins out. “A healthy society furthers” our “capacity to love” others, “to work creatively, to develop” our “reason and objectivity, to have a sense of self which is based on the experience of” our “own productive powers”; whereas, an “unhealthy society is one which creates mutual hostility, distrust, which transforms” us “into an instrument of use and exploitation for others, which deprives” us “of a sense of self” (Fromm, 1956: 72-73). Fromm (1964: 59) warns that the lack of protest against nuclear warfare and “the discussions of our “atomologists” of the balance sheet of total or half-total destruction” reveals “how far we have already gone into the “valley of the shadow of death””. This analogy retains critical relevance amid our own era of global warming and reactionary Right-wing nationalisms.

Ultimately, a political struggle is needed for a global and grassroots democratic socialism that enables the “full unfolding of biophilia” (Fromm, 1964: 46) and the full development of the person “who does not “dominate” nature, but who becomes one with it” (Fromm, 1961: 63). Fromm was a staunch critic of both capitalism and Stalinist totalitarianism. His vision of socialism was for an end to “existential egotism”, in which, quoting Marx, we are alienated from our “own body, external nature”, our “mental life” and our “human life” (Fromm, 1961: 53). Fromm (1961: 63) elucidates:

“Marx’s concept of socialism is a protest, as is all existentialist philosophy, against the alienation of [humans]; if, as Aldous Huxley put it, “our present economic, social and international arrangements are based, in large measure, upon organised lovelessness,” then Marx’s socialism is a protest against this very lovelessness […].”

This is a socialism against the exploitation by human beings of other human beings, of other living beings, and of nature; this is a struggle for a productive life, for life creating life, and for the ecological sovereignty of biophilia.

“Welcome to biophilia, the love for nature in all her manifestations…” (David Attenborough)

 

References:

Björk (2011a) Björk is back – Interview 2011 (about Biophilia), YouTube

Björk (2011b) Bjork: On Music and Biophilia – The Sound of Nature | WIRED 2013, YouTube

Fromm, E. (1973) The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Middlesex: Penguin Books

Fromm, E. (1964) The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. New York: Harper and Row Publishers

Fromm, E. (1961) Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.

Fromm, E. (1956) The Sane Society. London: Routledge

Kunkel, B. (2017) “The Capitalocene”. In London Review of Books 39(5), 22-28

Orr, D. W. (1993) “Love It or Lose It: The Coming Biophilia Revolution”. In The Biophilia Hypothesis, edited by S.R. Kellert and E. O. Wilson. Washington D.C.: Island, 415-440

Tuan, Y. F. (1990) Topophilia: a study of environmental perception, attitudes, and values. New York: Columbia University Press

Wilson, E. O. (1993) “Biophilia and the Conservation Ethic”. In The Biophilia Hypothesis, edited by S.R. Kellert and E. O. Wilson. Washington D.C.: Island, 31-41

Wilson, E. O. (1984) Biophilia. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press