TL/DR, but the juicy, Hipster Racist parts are bolded for your reading convenience. Jim Kunstler is mainstreaming reactionary, right wing thinking to the SWPL crowd, and the SWPL’s be diggin’ it!
Reactionary Progressivism: James Howard Kunstler and the Problem of ‘Rootedness’
Uncategorized Published June 4, 2013 at 7:42 pm No Comments
Written by: Harlan Morehouse on June 4, 2013.
In amassing materials, remarks, and notes scribbled onto far-flung scraps of paper for an upcoming article that addresses tensions between notions of resilience and resistance for the Resilience: International Policies, Practices and Discourses journal, I’ve found myself reflecting on some political and ideological implications of a recent talk at the University of Vermont.
In March of 2012, post-peak oil thinker and author James Howard Kunstler gave a talk entitled “The End of Cheap Energy” to a large, predominantly white, and ostensibly ‘progressive’ crowd of Vermonters who showed up for a sobering dose of no-nonsense catastrophism. Kunstler’s talk began with a diagnosis of industrialized society’s inherent instability, brought about by systemic dependence on easily accessible petroleum. And, following Kunstler, when readily available oil supplies dwindle so goes society down the path towards ruination. Thus, one of the most important tasks society faces, he suggested, is figuring out how to weather large-scale socio-economic breakdown by rethinking the meaning and practice of ‘community’ in a post-peak oil world.
While Kunstler’s scenario involved a small measure of oversimplification of the role (and sources) of energy in industrial and post-industrial capitalist society, his basic premise does contain a kernel of truth that requires sober reflection of how regimes of production, distribution, and consumption bring about ecological crises massively distributed in space and time. All of this seemed to sit well with the audience, who met Kunstler’s words with frequent applause and energetic head-nodding.
However, as the talk transitioned from diagnosis to critique things took on a worrisome tone. With the call to rethink community, Kunstler provided his views on queries such as: What are the boundaries of a post-peak community? Who would participate in such a community? And what ideal characteristics would community members display? For Kunstler, in a post-peak oil society where modes of transportation/distribution are severely compromised, community would be drastically confined and determined by local ecologies and their available, life-sustaining resources. Such a community, Kunstler inferred, would be agrarian-based with members’ lives closely tied to local agricultural productivity. Thus, with regard to the question of “who?” such a community would be populated by a kind of post-peak peasantry rooted in the earth and capable of working it with the aim of survival. Finally, to address the third question, members would possess the strength of character, self-discipline, and folksy know-how to better ensure post-catastrophe community resilience.
However, it became clear that Kunstler’s explanation of “who?” was thoroughly racialized, sexualized, and masculinized. The second half of his talk was shot through with criticism of how contemporary society feminizes and infantilizes men – as witnessed, according the Kunstler, by the feminine softness of obese males and the tendency for many youth to wear pants low as if to make room for diapers (a point containing clear racial connotations). Further, social Darwinism and Malthusianism graced the second half of his talk via allusions to demonstrable strength being a necessary precondition for survival in a post-peak oil world, and at-risk populations simply and naturally withering away due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control.
Such arguments ought to be of no surprise to anyone familiar with Kunstler’s work of fiction, World Made By Hand (2008), which tells the story of the United States brought to ruin by jihadist attacks and “The Mexican Flu,” both of which destabilize society and bring about looting, violent resource competition, and race wars. Consequently, remaining populations have little choice but to abandon urban settings and return to older, more resilient ways of living in contrast to life in industrialized capitalism. But such ways of living appear conditioned by exclusivity and subordination, seen in the daily workings of the fictional village of Union Grove in New York’s Hudson Valley, where men of value bear the corporeal imprints of manual labor and folksy know-how, and women of worth are obliged to fulfill subservient roles. As for people of color, there are none in Union Grove.
Again, placed within broader works Kunstler’s comments are unsurprising. What was surprising, however, was the lack of protest or discernible shift in the audience when he unveiled his critique of contemporary culture. The applause remained, as did the hundreds of nodding heads. But, one could also detect a greater frequency of laughter, which reinforces Kunstler’s own description of his lectures as “stand-up comedy with some dark moments.” Despite my appreciation for dark humor, however, I found little to laugh about in Kunstler’s shoot-from-the-hip, no-nonsense way of addressing major socio-ecological issues, because the underpinning political ideology was deeply reactionary and potentially dangerous. That Kunstler is a reactionary is perhaps a brute fact of reality; yet, I was left wondering how such a seemingly ‘progressive’ and ‘forward-looking’ crowd could relish in a politics so acutely at odds with its apparent own.
This issue requires more thought (and space) than can be provided here, but I do nevertheless wish to posit three interrelated observations:
First, there is a segment of the middle class (perhaps reducible to a kind of green-consumerist inner-worldliness) that takes great delight in contemplating the conditions of its own demise, and by extension in its own eventual, self-orchestrated salvation.
Second, a hasty movement from diagnosis of contemporary socio-ecological crises to critique of contemporary society risks positing a form of argumentation where one cannot help but arrive at conclusions that would otherwise appear as ideologically egregious. Put differently, by naturalizing conditions of crisis as objectively-existing and all-pervasive states of affair, one runs the risk summoning a state of exception that allows for the suspension the political, thus permitting uncritical adoption of ideologies that run contrary to notions of justice, liberation, equality, etc. Here, the intoxicating lure of societal collapse paves way for loose fantasy, wherein one might imagine a more ideal version of oneself liberated from social constraints and conventions – hence, the pleasure of ruin.
Third, what might look ‘progressive’ on a local scale (e.g., community sustainability and resiliency initiatives, localism, etc.) can appear quite destructive when one expands the spatial scale of reference. (I.e., in what ways might ‘green’ campaigns at location X correspond to environmental degradation at location Y?) Further, when one takes a step back from catastrophe narratives to critically assess the ideological presuppositions at play in, say, certain renderings of ‘adaptation’ and ‘resilience,’ what seems progressive, right, or necessary might contain manifest elements of reactionary politics and/or subtle traces of the same.
To briefly flesh out some points deriving from these three observations, I want to return to Kunstler’s reference to bucolic ideals coupled with his call for a rootedness in response to the rootlessness caused by contemporary society (in which masculinity is undermined by femininity and infantility).
First, even a cursory glance at some of the most devastating political ideologies of the 20th century suffices to show that agriculture in the service of ideology (or vice-versa) has disastrous consequences. Whether the Khmer Rouge’s policy of anti-urbanism and forced agriculturalization, the Nazi ideology of Blut und Boden, or Soviet collectivization of agriculture in Ukraine and the resulting Holodomor, it is clear that agriculture is hardly a politically neutral technology, and that panegyrics paid to the archetype of an authentic peasantry are politically loaded. This is not to suggest that Kunstler is on par with Pol Pot, Hitler, or Stalin, but it means to suggest that Kunstler’s preoccupation with post-societal and post-political agricultural idealism is cause for concern.
Second, Kuntsler’s call for folksy rootedness (and he is not alone in this call, as it is a common theme amongst a wide range of ‘intentional communities’ literature) is equal cause for concern, for one can witness something similar at work in Heidegger’s perspectives on Bodenständigkeit, a term which, in Charles Bambach’s words, “evoked a völkisch [folk-ish] concern for… the steadiness or steadfastness that comes from being rooted. It can refer to a rootedness in the soil or earth but it can also denote a rootedness in tradition or in a community” (2003). For Heidegger, the loss of rootedness “springs form the spirit of the age into which we are all born” (1966). In response to rootlessness, it becomes critical for a Volk to grasp its own originary essence as rootedness in the landscape – recognition of which would establish a path to future greatness “that can only be followed by an essential self-assertion that asserts its own self in and through its return to the origin” (2003).
I tread carefully here because the conditions that led to the emergence of Heidegger’s perspectives on Bodenständigkeit and eventually, in a roundabout way, to Blut und Boden are different from the conditions that give rise to Kunstler’s call for rootedness. Thus, to establish fundamental equivalency between the two would be much too hasty of a step. Nor do I wish to suggest that developing intimate knowledge of local ecologies gives way to fascistic impulses. Yet, when calls for rootedness in general are coupled with anti-urban, masculinist, and racist inclinations in addition to romanticized versions of agrarianism, then something closely resembling a fascistic impulse does seem to be at work.
Ernst Bloch critically identified this very danger in developing the notion of pastorale militans, which ‘captured the jarring effect of [a] violent conjoining of pastoral and militant themes’ (1991, 2003) As Bambach suggests:
“This whole preoccupation with rootedness, Bloch will argue, cannot be accepted as an innocently bucolic affinity for hearth, field, and homeland. It needs, rather, to be understood as an encoded discourse about political exclusion, repression, and racial intolerance that serves to gird a regime ultimately bent on terror and extinction” (2003).
Bloch’s argument, I think, holds as true now as it did in 1935, despite differences in scale of reference (national vs. local) and historical contexts. However, the issue of Kunstler’s work is much larger than Kunstler himself. He’s an easy target and it doesn’t require much theoretical nuance to dismiss his narrative. The issue, rather, concerns just how attractive deeply reactionary narratives appear to many people who would otherwise refuse any close identification with a reactionary politics, let alone a fascistic politics. Put differently, the issue lies in how the narratives we tell ourselves about society’s undoing have a way of foreclosing critical political nuance and consequently grant free reign to figments of repression. It thus remains one of the many tasks of a critical geophilosophy to attend to narratives of crisis and catastrophe, and to resist the impulses of de-politicization.
Bambach, Charles R. Heidegger’s Roots : Nietzsche, National Socialism and the Greeks. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003.
Bloch, Ernst. Heritage of Our Times. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1991.
Heidegger, Martin. Discourse on Thinking. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.
Kunstler, James Howard. World Made by Hand. 1st ed. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008.