Monday, February 23, 2009
Robert Jensen Doesn’t Just Challenge Patriotism
Professor Says We Must Prepare for a Localized, Post-Industrial Economy
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The title of the presentation University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen gave at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest February 21 — “Saying Goodbye to Patriotism; Ideas for Action: An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, Culture and Resistance” — was quite a mouthful. But, amazingly, his actual talk had an even broader scope than its title indicated. Drawing on everything from global-warming studies and analyses of the American empire to Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah, Amos and Micah, Jensen defined America as being in three life-or-death crises — “empire, economy and ecology” — and said the only solution was abandoning not only patriotism but the industrial lifestyle and rebuilding the entire world into smaller, more local, more sustainable human communities.
Jensen’s oddly cheerful demeanor stood at sharp contrast to his message, which was one of depression and despair. He acknowledged the contradiction, opening his talk by saying, “I’m happy to be here because I’m so depressed and this is a group with which I can share my depression. An older activist told me, ‘I wake up every morning in a state of profound grief,’ and I’m here to share that grief — but in a joyous way.” Jensen then announced that his next book, scheduled for publication this year, will be called All My Bones Shake, after a quote from the prophet Jeremiah — “My heart has broken within me, all my bones shake” — that summed up how he sees his own mission in today’s world and the task facing progressives in general.
“Let’s talk about the source of our current crises — not just one crisis, but crises going on all around us: empire, economics and ecology,” Jensen said. “In this audience, let’s start with empire because that probably requires the least discussion. The U.S. has imposed itself on the world in an imperial manner probably since the first white people set foot here, and certainly since the end of World War II. After 9/11, it became easier because the U.S. ruling class started using the word ‘empire’ itself. The U.S. abroad engages in classic imperialist policies, and the result is literally millions of bodies either through our own wars of aggression or through proxy wars. That is the nature of empire. The U.S. ruling class claims ours is the first ‘benevolent empire,’ but many previous empires have claimed that. Empires are never benevolent.”
Jensen called American foreign policy “a bipartisan effort to prop up an empire in decline” and noted that Barack Obama is as faithful a servant of the American empire as was George W. Bush. “He’s only talking about a ‘drawdown,’ not a complete withdrawal, in Iraq, and he’s ramping up the imperial project in Afghanistan,” Jensen said.
According to Jensen, the current economic crisis facing the U.S. “is not just a recession that threatens to turn into a depression, but [the result of] a capitalist system that is fundamentally undemocratic, inhuman and unsustainable. Capitalism is based on a moral argument that if human beings become nothing but ‘greed machines,’ somehow the public interest will be served. The result is a world at odds with our stated principles of equality and justice, in which half of the world’s people live on less than $2 a day. Capitalism is defined by wealth inequality, and if you concentrate wealth, you concentrate power. Capitalism is fundamentally anti-democratic. Capitalism is also unsustainable.”
What makes capitalism unsustainable, Jensen argued, is the strain it’s putting on the environment — the third of his three great crises. “Does anyone want to argue that our current system of resource use can be sustained?” Jensen said. “The evidence of unsustainability mounts every day. All of the markers of the health of the earth are in decline.”
Jensen also mentioned a fourth crisis — a cultural crisis — in a way that most progressives and Leftists carefully avoid. In addition to books on race, empire and radical history, Jensen has also had his name on two books strongly denouncing pornography: Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (which he wrote solo) and Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality (co-authored with Gail Dines and Ann Russo). Noting the grim irony that a lot of people seeing those titles on his online C.V. log on to them expecting them to be porn sites, Jensen said he sees the growing popularity of porn and its easy availability on the Internet as a sign that “a lot of our culture has been corroded.”
That’s a phrase far more often used by people on the Right than on the Left — and that’s precisely the problem, Jensen said. “We haven’t won many battles on empire, economics and ecology, but at least those are issues we know how to talk about,” he explained. “We haven’t learned to talk about the corrosive nature of contemporary culture, so the radical Right has taken that over and talked about it in terms of sin, depravity and judgment.”
Jensen also made one point that leads him to worry that the current economic crisis may end up worse than the Great Depression of the 1930’s. “There’s one major difference between 1929 and now,” he explained. “A lot of the skills and networks that allowed people to survive the Great Depression no longer exist, including the basic ability to grow your own food. Those are tangible skills our grandparents generally had, and we are now lacking. The institutions that bound people together back then are largely eroded.”
Where Jensen’s logic leads him is to a vision of the world’s future that largely reverts to a pre-industrial economy. He’s put a new spin on the old environmentalist slogan, “Think globally — act locally.” Jensen argues that once the world runs out of fossil fuels, the entire industrial economy we’ve grown up under — with millions of people being able to live in cities without any direct connection to their food supply and trusting a transportation system to move both themselves and the resources they need for survival along great distances — will be impossible, and we need to be preparing for that now by creating self-sufficient local communities.
At the same time, Jensen said, the necessities of survival in a post-industrial world will force us to abandon atavistic loyalties to nation-states and see the question of survival in global terms. “We recognize that we face a task probably more difficult than any other time in history,” he said. “If we abandon the sense of ourselves primarily as citizens of a nation-state, we have to move in two directions. One is local: we have to realize that we are part of an ecosystem and have to live in harmony with it. At the same time, the ecology really demands we get local, our economic reality demands we stay global. We live as well as we do precisely because our ancestors did that imperial project, and it would be wrong to pretend it didn’t happen and not recognize our obligations at the global level.”
Jensen got a wide range of audience questions after his speech, from people questioning his refusal to use the word “socialism” to describe his post-capitalist, post-industrialist future to one person wondering why he could reject patriotism while citing the Bible as a source. He said he avoided the term “socialism” partly because the American people have been so thoroughly conditioned to hate the idea and partly because to him, socialism isn’t a radical enough term. Usually, he explained, socialism means taking the industrial production system and running it in a way that benefits its workers instead of capitalists — whereas what Jensen insists we need is to go beyond the industrial system itself. Unlike peace activist S. Brian Willson, who gave a similar presentation in San Diego two years ago, Jensen did not confront the issue that his post-industrial future will likely support only a small percentage of the total number of people that live on the earth now.
As for his use of the Bible and its imagery, Jensen said, “Like it or not, 75 percent of the American public identifies as Christian. That’s a stock of stories that underlies this culture, and understanding the roots of these stories and re-narrating them is important. Also, a lot of the early Christian tradition did not believe in the supernatural. Until Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, a lot of it was a critique of the empire of their time. The more I look at human traditions and stories across cultures, the more I see similarities. I want to see whether these [Biblical] texts can become a locus of political struggle.”