War, ecological crises, and the quest for justice:
An interview with Robert Jensen
If you feel overwhelmed, it’s because we face an overwhelming situation.
By Calvin Sloan / The Rag Blog / November 3, 2009
[The following is an edited version of an interview with Robert Jensen conducted by Calvin Sloan for the radio show “The Pursuit of Injustice,” on KVRX in Austin. The podcast can be streamed or downloaded here. An earlier version was published by Energy Bulletin, October 30, 2009.]
Calvin Sloan: So to start off, let’s address some topical issues. The war in Afghanistan has been described in the mainstream media as America’s good war and as the cornerstone of the “War on Terror.” President Obama is currently debating an increase in troop levels there. He’s already sent an additional 21,000 since taking office, and as the Washington Post recently reported, has been deploying without public announcement 13,000 additional troops. You’ve been an outspoken critic of the war since its inception, what is your take on the current situation there?
Robert Jensen: I think any assessment of the current situation has to remember that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was illegal. The United States invaded the country with no legal authorization. It claimed the right to do this because of the relationship between the governing Taliban and Al Qaeda and the events of 9/11, but there were many ways that the United States could have pursued a just solution to the question of the terrorism of 9/11.
So, why would it pursue an illegal and, I would argue, immoral invasion? Here we have to remember that U.S. military interventions in the Middle East and Central Asia, whatever the stated reason for them, are really about energy resources. The Middle East especially is home to the most extensive reserves of petroleum. There’s a lot of natural gas in Central Asia, plus it has geostrategic importance. So let’s get rid of the idea that this is about the “War on Terror.”
Does the United States want to end terrorist attacks against Americans? Sure, but that doesn’t mean that this particular war is a war on terrorism. We also should remember the phrase is a bad joke, that terrorism is a method by which people try to achieve political goals. You don’t have a war on a method. If you’re going to make war, you’re making war for specific purposes against specific people in specific places, and the “War on Terror” is simply way too obscure for that.
So with all of that background, if the United States were to pursue a just and legal path it would begin a withdrawal from Afghanistan, pay the reparations it owes to the people of Afghanistan, and attempt to work with the appropriate regional and international organizations to try to help Afghanistan transition to a decent government. The United States has no intention of doing that.
So, the proposed buildup in Afghanistan is not only immoral, it’s not only fundamentally unjust, it’s also incredibly stupid. On all counts, anyway you want to evaluate this, the United States is making crucial errors.
The fact that Barrack Obama, the alleged peace candidate in the last election, is willing to pursue this just reminds us of the limits of contemporary mainstream electoral politics with a choice reduced to Republicans and Democrats. What we should be thinking about is the whole structure of, and motivation behind, our involvement in the Middle East and Central Asia, and we should also be rethinking the whole structure of our political discourse at home.
CS: So if this is by all means a stupid endeavor to continue this occupation, why are we doing this? Who is profiting from this? What are the underlying motivations of our occupation?
RJ: Remember that just because people in power might be corrupt and immoral doesn’t mean they’re always competent in pursuing that corruption. If you look back at probably the most grotesque U.S. intervention in the post World War II period, the Vietnam War, there were corrupt and immoral reasons the United States invaded Vietnam — mostly to undermine independent development and try to dominate the third world — but in trying to carry out those objectives there were a lot of incompetent decisions made. And sometimes incompetence compounds itself, so as you get further and further into a set of bad strategic decisions, there is an instinct to want to rescue them, but unfortunately it often leads to even more bad strategic decisions.
So, why are we doing it? Well, there’s a certain amount of irrationality to these strategic decision making, even though it’s in the pursuit of a rational — albeit I would say immoral — goal, which is to dominate the Middle East and Central Asia. Why are we doing it? Are there profit motivations for private contractors, who are making a killing? Sure. Are there oil companies and gas companies that want concessions? Sure. There are always those things, but I think that the driving force behind U.S. foreign policy tends not to be the interest of any particular industry or any particular set of contractors, but the fact that the whole system is designed to perpetuate this quest for dominance. And those other factors, like the interests of Blackwater (which has changed its name to Xe Services) or ExxonMobil, just contribute to the motive force behind the policy more generally.
CS: So here we are in 2009, and we’ve entered the ninth year of the war in Afghanistan and we’ve similarly occupied Iraq since 2003, yet when you look around it’s hard to notice that we’re running on a war economy. It’s become so normalized, and from a student’s perspective it’s interesting to note that the majority of undergraduates across the country have spent all of their high school and college careers with our nation at war.
And my question is, how do you think history will judge this perpetual war? Do you believe we’ve entered into Orwell’s 1984 realm, are we living in a society where war has officially become peace?
RJ: I don’t think we have to wait for history to judge it. I think we can assess it today and it’s pretty straight forward. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was illegal. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was a cover for other interests, and that’s all doubly true with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The whole project is corrupt beyond description. Yet, the propaganda industries, not just the propaganda emanating from the government, but the propaganda industries — advertising, entertainment, journalism — are all perpetuating this crazed interpretation of the War on Terror, because they all have an interest in doing that. They are all ideologically connected to the same project.
And yes, it’s Orwellian in that sense, it’s corrupt, it’s immoral, it’s illegal, it’s all these things that we’re talking about, and we don’t have to wait for history 30 years from now to make that judgment. What we have to do is recognize it, and try to organize against it. But I think what we should be doing is not just opposing this war but recognizing that the disease from which this war springs is more deeply set in the culture than ever before.
You can clearly see that on a college campus. Remember that when the United States invaded and began to destroy Vietnam, the opposition to that war started, and was always strongest, on college campuses. There was a kind of “natural,” if you’ll accept the term, resistance from students to that imposition of power from above.
Well in some sense, campuses are the most passive places when it comes to anti-war activity today. To the degree that there is an anti-war movement, it’s mostly rooted in the community. So, that tells us something about what’s happened in universities, the way universities have been turned toward a more corporate and ideologically neutered position, though campuses could potentially be centers of opposition, resistance, and struggle. Well, that’s about not just the war, that’s about what’s happened to American higher education, the corporatization of higher education.
In other words, the war is an indicator not just of the depravity of the war-makers, it’s a very important indicator of what’s going on in society more generally. And about that, I’m terrified. The direction the whole culture is heading is very scary. It’s an imperial culture in decline. The United States remains the most powerful country in the world, at least in raw military terms. It remains the largest economy in the world. But it’s an affluent imperial society in decline, and such a society is very dangerous. I think we should be paying attention not only to what these wars tell us about foreign policy and military affairs, but also what they tell us about our society at a much deeper level.
CS: So are you saying that the universities aren’t actually free? Do you think that that’s affected by the politics of tenure and publishing grants?
RJ: It’s affected by the structure of financing, it’s affected by the rewards and punishments that faculty members respond to in building careers. For students, it’s about the economy that the students are going into, and how students are conditioned to believe that college is career training. It’s about trying to create the University as an allegedly politically neutral space, but of course any time you talk about political neutrality what you’re talking about is de facto support for the existing distribution of power. All of these things are part of it, and we should be concerned with it.
Is the University free? Well at some level, obviously yes. Here we are in a University office, I’m a University professor, we’re talking about things that will be on a University radio station. Of course it’s free in that sense, but it’s also a system structured in a way that is going to divert most people from the kind of conversation we’re having. So there are constraints. That’s true of any institution. There are opportunities and freedoms, and then there are constraints. I think what we should be focused on — whether we’re talking about the Universities or the media or any of the other intellectual institution — is how the freedom that exists on the surface is often masking a deeper kind of pressure toward conformity, a conformity that’s not enforced through the barrel of a gun, as in a totalitarian society, but a conformity that’s enforced in a much more complex, and in some a ways a much more effective, fashion, through the rewards and the punishments we’re talking about.
CS: I’d like to move on to your most recently published article entitled “Is Obama a Socialist?” In this article you express a deep concern for our evolving ecological crisis, specifically I’d like to refer to the following statement: “Capitalism is an economic system based on the concept of unlimited growth, yet we live on a finite planet. Capitalism is, quite literally, crazy.” Can you explain this concept further to us?
RJ: For most of the past couple hundred years, we’ve been living really in a rather unique historical moment. First of all it’s a moment made possible by unleashing the enormous energy of coal, oil, and natural gas, the fossil fuels. That’s a blip in human history. There’s never been energy like that available to human beings before, and we’re quickly running out of it. So, all of this bonanza of consumption and material comfort is really subsidized by that energy source, and there is nothing on the horizon to replace it. All of the talk of alternative fuels and biofuels and wind and solar, that’s fine, they are all going to supply some energy, but they are not going to replace the energy we’ve been using from coal, oil, and natural gas.
The explosion of this energy is also the time in which modern industrial capitalism has emerged. It’s all based on a fantasy that is easy to understand because of all that energy. It did look like we could simply grow endlessly. But the ecological crises, and I use the plural quite specifically — multiple crises, not just global warming but levels of toxicity in the air, water, loss of top soil, the reduction in biodiversity — are part of a global pattern that is uncontroversial: We are reaching, and probably are long beyond, the carrying capacity of the planet, and we are drawing down the ecological capital of the planet at a rate that is increasingly threatening, not just centuries from now, but likely in decades.
That’s all part of an era in which capitalism led us to believe we could have unlimited growth. It’s a crazy claim, and more striking is that it is a crazy claim that is considered to be the conventional wisdom. This is the kind of thing we should be worried about. We’re not having a debate about capitalism in this country — there’s no debate for the most part in the mainstream. Capitalism is taken to be the only way to organize an economy, yet it is a system of organizing an economy that is literally crazy. Well, if that doesn’t scare people, then I don’t know what will.
CS: If you are implying that if we are at a level of overreach, that there will be, that we might reach a population crash?
RJ: I think it’s inevitable. Ecological overshoot is the key concept. The planet has a carrying capacity. The planet can host only so many human beings, depending on the level at which we live. I’m not a scientist, I’m not an ecologist, I’m not trained in any of this, but reading people whose judgment I trust, and trying to synthesize the information that I can, my judgment is that we’re probably well past the carrying capacity of the planet already.
And at the level of first-world consumption, we are dramatically past the carrying capacity. That is, if you are going to expand this high energy consumption and lifestyle of the first world to the whole planet, it would be game-over tomorrow. If everybody in the world lived like you and I live, the planet would literally die tomorrow. So the only reason we can continue this system is the fact that a good portion of the world’s population is living at a dramatically lower level than we are. Even at that level, I don’t think that the world can support this many people. So we’re in a position of overshoot.
When is the crash going to come? Well in some sense the answer is it’s already here. You have half the world’s population living on less than $2.50 a day, you have hundreds of people dying every hour in Africa from easily preventable diseases, you have the beginnings of ecological crises that are manifesting themselves not only in the reduction of biodiversity but in the direct threat to human life.
When is all of this going to come crashing? Well I don’t know, because I don’t have a crystal ball and no one else does. The question shouldn’t be when can you predict all of this is going to fall apart. More important is the recognition that it inevitably will fall apart, and we should prepare for it, in both physical terms and moral terms. My own view is that, if not in my lifetime certainly in yours, there will be a massive human die-off. That’s an antiseptic term — it means that millions upon millions of people will die in large sweeps across the planet. What do we do about that morally? What do you do if you’re living in a world in which you know that simply by virtue of the luck of where you were born, you are protected from a scourge that is literally killing millions around the planet?
Well we’re seeing small examples of that today with such things as the devastation from easily preventable diseases in Africa for instance, but what if that happens on a massive scale? I don’t think the human species has a way to cope with that. We’re not ready physically, technologically, but we’re also not ready morally. And the only way you get ready for that is by openly discussing it, but it’s still a culture that cannot come to terms with this. Everything we’re talking about today would have been unthinkable as subjects for the presidential election. No candidate could talk like this and expect to be elected, because the culture is still in such deep denial about the fundamentally unsustainable nature of our economic system and the moral implications of that.
CS: How do you think nation-states will respond to these collapse scenarios?
RJ: First of all I think we should recognize nation-states are not inevitable for the rest of human history. My own view is that were going to end up finding other ways to organize ourselves politically, because the nation-state is at the center of so much of this destruction.
How will people respond? Well I think a lot of that has to do with how the most powerful nations respond. Remember that one of the aspects of being the most affluent and militarily powerful countries on the planet is that what you do matters a lot. You can continue to pursue insane strategies in a crazy system, or you can tell the truth. And if powerful countries tell the truth, start to actively reduce their energy and other material consumption, start to take seriously the demands of justice in equalizing the distribution of wealth around the world, give up on fantasies of control and domination, well that would have a huge effect.
The developing world, which clearly doesn’t trust us and shouldn’t trust us, might be able to move into a posture of more cooperation. Democratic movements within those countries might strengthen when they know there is in fact a commitment from the powerful states to real law, real democracy, real justice, real moral principles. Well, all of that is possible. It’s not a guarantee of success. We could do everything we can imagine in the realm of just and sustainable policies and still fail. The human species does not have some magic guarantee of endless success. Other species have come and gone, and it’s quite possible — in fact, I would argue it’s probably likely — were going to go that way relatively soon. And people always say, well that’s a rather depressing fact. Well if it’s a fact, it’s a fact, but of course there’s no way to know for sure, and we can struggle to create a different future, without guarantees.
But even if it does seem to be our future, what of the time we are here? I think part of what makes one fully human is to resist that, to struggle, even with no guarantee of success. And that’s where I put my faith. Maybe it’s a faith that is going to be betrayed, but I don’t see any better option at the moment.
CS: If we were to inevitably make this transition, or at least in the process of making it, do you believe that there will be restoration of matriarchal values?
RJ: I don’t think it’s about matriarchy versus patriarchy. Patriarchy is a system that emerged in the last 8,000 to 10,000 years, and it imposed systems of hierarchy, not just around gender but around other differences as well, and we are still trying to get out from under those. If we succeed in that — if we succeed in realizing that power does not come only with the ability to control other people, that power comes in the creative potential of human collaboration, it can come in non-hierarchical ways to organize ourselves — it doesn’t mean obviously that there will be a matriarchy, if by that we mean a world in which women dominate. It means that we move into a real space where mutuality and egalitarian values can reign.
What will that look like? I don’t know. If we were to magically get there in my lifetime I couldn’t begin to imagine what it would look like. I know that it won’t look much like the institutions I live in today — it won’t look like the modern corporation, it won’t look like the modern nation-state, it won’t look like the modern University. But you don’t really predict those things, you try to live them. And you live them in small steps, not in some grand utopian fantasy.
CS: Given our trajectory towards this cliff, this ecological cliff, should college students be rethinking their career choices? Are we being trained properly?
RJ: Reality is going to force college students to reconsider career choices, when certain assumptions will no longer hold. The most important thing that Universities could do right now is be laboratories for experiments outside of the dominant system, which is exactly what we’re not doing.
What we’re doing is still training people to be rats in a maze. Well, what if we said, the maze is over. For now, the maze may still exist out in the world, but we’re going to spend four years here going beyond the maze, and your job as a student, and your job as a faculty member, is to experiment with alternatives. That would mean a dramatically different curriculum, that would mean a dramatically different classroom.
I would like to see that happen. In journalism education, the collapse of the commercial journalism industry — the fact that there are fewer jobs for our students in the traditional journalism institutions — gives us a kind of opportunity. It’s a disaster at one level, in that the way we’ve done things no longer works, but it’s also an opportunity to reshape those methods.
In my own experience, there is a lot of resistance to that kind of change, because it is kind of frightening. If you’ve been doing something on a model that in the past has worked, or at least appeared to work, and now people are saying that model is over, well it’s not exactly easy to jump to that position where everything is up for grabs. But that’s what Universities should be doing. Unfortunately, not only in journalism but in the University at large, I think there is a distinct lack of that spirit. There is an attempt to kind of hunker down, and make this model work, but I don’t think the model can work. I don’t think it ever worked for real education, but it’s certainly not going to work in a dramatically changing landscape.
CS: What advice do you offer UT students, or just to activists of all ages, who want to participate, want to fight the system, but feel overwhelmed by its strength?
RJ: If you feel overwhelmed, let’s recognize that that’s a rational response. If you feel overwhelmed, it’s because we face an overwhelming situation. We’re facing a collapse economically, a collapse of U.S. power around the world, and ecological crises that defy the imagination. Well that is overwhelming. But we should also look at history and realize that this is not the first time the world has appeared to be on the brink, and people didn’t lie down and die in the past. People organized, people committed to long-term projects to create a different future, and we can still do that.
In my case, I’ve moved toward a focus on helping to build local community networks and institutions that can help people explore other alternatives. One of the groups in Austin I’ve connected with is the Workers Defense Project, a wonderful group that helps immigrant workers, especially undocumented immigrant workers, who are vulnerable to exploitation by employers. Through that work it offers a critique of the underlying power structure and a vehicle for people to build the power to change things. It’s really inspiring.
If we’re going to be effective, we’ve got to dig in for the long haul. There’s a paradox in all this. We may feel the crisis is more urgent then ever — and I do feel that, more than ever — but we have to recognize there’s no short-term solution, and we have to dig in for the long haul. That might be difficult, but it’s the only way I can see us moving forward.
[Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism of the University of Texas at Austin and a board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book is All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice (Soft Skull Press, 2009). His film, Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing, has been released by the Media Education Foundation. Jensen can be reached at email@example.com. His articles on The Rag Blog are here and his writing can also be found here.]