Sunshine Recorder

Link: Diana Athill: It’s Silly to Be Frightened of Being Dead

At the age of 96, the legendary editor Diana Athill writes, the idea of death has never been less alarming. The process of dying is another matter.

Back in the 1920s my mother never went to a funeral if she could help it, and was horrified when she heard of children being exposed to such an ordeal, and my father vanished from the room if death was mentioned; very much later, in the 1960s, when the publishers in which I was a partner brought out a beautiful and amusing book about the trappings of death, booksellers refused to stock something so “morbid”. I was born in December 1917, so was fully immersed in this refusal to contemplate death. Indeed it was not until more than 30 years later, when I had to visit a coroner’s office to identify a woman who had been found dead, that I thought for the first time how extraordinary – indeed how ridiculous – it was to have lived for so long without ever having seen a dead body. I have heard it suggested that this recoil from the subject was a result of the first world war filling everyone’s minds with an acute and appalled awareness of death, but my own explanation was, and still is, that it was a pendulum-swing away from the preceding century’s obsession with the subject – the relish for mourning, ranging from solemn viewing of the corpse by young and old alike, to passionate concern about the exact degree of blackness to be worn, and for how long (for the rest of your days if you were a widow). A mood so extreme surely had to result in a strong reaction.

It seems to me that what influences the consciousness in wartime is not death. It is killing. And no, they are not the same thing.

Death is the inevitable end of an individual object’s existence – I don’t say “end of life” because it is a part of life. Everything begins, develops – if animal or vegetable, breeds – then fades away: everything, not just humans, animals, plants, but things which seem to us eternal, such as rocks. Mountains wear down from jagged peaks to flatness. Even planets decay. That natural process is death. Killing is the obscene intervention of violence, the violation which prevents a human being or any other animal from reaching death as it should be reached. Killing certainly did affect the minds of those exposed to the first world war. It shocked most of them into silence: many of the men who survived fighting in it never spoke of it, and I think it had the same effect on most of those the men returned to. It was too dreadful. They shut down on it.


My maternal grandparents’ house, in which the children of my generation spent all their holidays, and where we stayed if our empire-serving parents were abroad in some place inhospitable to the young, was typical of those times in that the only music-making objects in it were an upright piano and a small wind-up record player that had belonged to my uncle when he was a boy: a condition probably unthinkable to children today. There was no pop music because there were no teenagers, only children and grownups. Certainly once the children had turned 12 they began being restive (the grownups called it “the awkward age”) but there was little to be done about it. There were music-hall songs and dance music, but they could only come into a home via sheet music and if there was someone there who could play the piano, and the limit of adult piano-playing in our family was nursery rhymes to amuse the little ones. A hint of the future might have been detected in the eagerness with which we children fell on Uncle Billy’s little “gramaphone”, which had been forgotten by the grownups. We listened over and over again to the few records that went with it – some Gilbert and Sullivan songs and two or three spirituals sung by Paul Robeson. Right at the back of the cupboard where they lived I once found another record, which turned out to be a wartime song, a comic and rather witty version of Who Killed Cock Robin called Who Killed Bill Kaiser. Although I was born before the war’s end, it was as remote and unreal to me as the wars of the roses, so I was as thrilled as I would have been if I had dug up a medieval helmet, and ran to show the record to my mother. All she said was, “That old thing – is it still there?” It was a shock to come up so suddenly against the fact that what to me was history, to her was just something from the day before yesterday. Absolutely no trace of that day before yesterday had been injected into my consciousness by my elders, so whatever I was to feel about death, it had nothing to do with war.

My own experience of the second world war confirmed this. Before it started, during the horrible months when we could all feel it coming, I said to a friend: “If it does start I think I’ll kill myself.” (Although the preceding war had been little talked about, poets and novelists had written about it, so we were fully aware that a repetition ought to be unthinkable.) My friend replied, “Killing yourself to avoid being killed would be a bit silly,” and I felt sadly that she was being obtuse. It was not the prospect of being killed that was distressing me, it was having to know this obscenity about life. And that, not fear of death, was what polluted one’s consciousness all through the war, so that the moment it was over we too shut down on it.

Because we did shut down. “It’s over!” That knowledge wiped out any other feeling. Although I have never doubted (heaven knows why) that we were going to win the abomination, there had been times when I had not thought – perhaps “thought” is wrong – when I had not felt it possible that it would ever end. In one’s twenties a year is a very long time, and there had been so many of them. It astounds me now when I hear or read people describing the 1950s as dreary, because to me they were wonderful. What did it matter that rationing dragged on? We were getting more for our coupons every day – it was slow of course, but how could it be otherwise after what we had been through? Now we had our new Labour government, we had the National Health Service (how can anyone forget what a miracle that was?), we had Dior’s ravishing New Look, we could travel again and who cared if we could take no more than £25 with us when it was so amazing what one could do on £25 in France or Italy or Greece. I could see no reason to be anything but happy, and death was just something that would occur when I was old – and which was not, and never had been, frightening.

That this was true, I owe to Montaigne. I can’t remember when I read, or was told, that he considered it a good thing to spend a short time every day thinking about death, thus getting used to its inevitability and coming to understand that something inevitable is natural and can’t be too bad, but it was in my early teens, and it struck me as a sensible idea. Of course I didn’t set out to think about death in a regular way every day, but I did think about it quite often, and sure enough, it worked. Why coming to see death’s naturalness should have caused belief in an afterlife to melt away, I am unsure, but it did. Probably that belief had been no more than an unexamined acceptance of something said by a grownup: in a child’s life there are many things more important to question than the probability of reuniting after death with other dead people – ideas that are tucked away on a back shelf of the mind like some object for which one has no use at present.


When I was 16, I had my appendix removed: an operation common in those days which seems to have gone out of fashion. Going under the anaesthetic, which was chloroform, caused an interesting confrontation with that particular idea. As a little girl I had occasionally suspected that there was a monster under my bed waiting to come out and get me, scaring myself so much that I had to be calmed down and assured that I was imagining it. Presumably the anaesthetist preparing me for the operation diminished the flow of chloroform too soon, because I became conscious, without the least idea of where I was or what was happening: all I knew was that I was lying on my back, on a bed, with a stifling claw clamped down on my face. They had been lying! The monster had been there all the time and now it had come out and got me, I was dying! The dying felt like tipping over the edge of a cliff into black nothingness. I was hanging desperately on to the rim of the cliff. I was staring into that black nothingness – and horror of horrors, understood that it was not nothingness: there were shapes swimming about, things happening, creatures at large out there, and I was about to be pitched in among all that, unprepared, ignorant, totally incapable of coping. It was terrifying – surely one was supposed to change in some way at death, but I was still unchanged, still just my miserably inadequate self. Into my mind there came the thought, “If I start to believe in God perhaps I’ll be allowed to change so that I will know what to do?” At which – and I’m still proud of this – I answered myself: “No! That would be too shameful, just because I’m frightened.” I let go, and down into the black nothingness I slid.

So, when many years later I really was near death as a result of a haemorrhage after a miscarriage, and heard a doctor saying “She’s very near collapse – call the lab and tell him to run” and understood that the “him” was the person fetching the blood they were going to pump into me, I was not in the least alarmed as I dimly wondered if I had the strength left to think some suitable Last Thought, concluded that I hadn’t, and said to myself the words: “Oh well, if I die I die.” I was sure, then, that nothingness was just that.

I live now in an old people’s home with 42 others, our average age being 90, or perhaps a little more. When one makes the difficult decision (and difficult it is) to retire from normal life, get rid of one’s home and most of one’s possessions, and move into such a place (or be moved, which doesn’t apply here I am glad to say) it means that one has reached the stage of thinking, “How am I going to manage my increasing incompetence now that I’m so old? Who is going to look after me when I can no longer look after myself?” Death is no longer something in the distance, but might well be encountered any time now.

You might suppose that this would make it more alarming, but judging from what I now see around me, the opposite happens. Being within sight, it has become something for which one ought to prepare. One of the many things I like about my retirement home is the sensible practical attitude towards death that prevails here. You are asked without embarrassment whether you would rather die here or in a hospital, whether you want to be kept alive whatever happens, or would prefer a heart attack, for instance, to be allowed to take its course, and how you wish your body to be disposed of. Though when a death occurs in the home it is treated with the utmost respect, and also with a rather amazing tact in relation to us survivors, so that I doubt if anyone has ever been disturbed by such activity as I suppose surrounds the moment of a death, and the removal of a body: a carefulness of our peace of mind which must involve very well-planned management.

These matters have become discussable with one’s friends, not, of course, as a frequent part of gossip over lunch in the dining room (our only communal occasion) but from time to time, perhaps when admiring someone’s stoicism if their frailty is becoming painfully apparent, or feeling sad at someone else’s inability to accept what seems to be imminent. As a result of this openness, I think that most of the people here would consider it foolish to be frightened of being dead. All of us, however, feel some degree of anxiety about the process of dying.

That process depends on what you are dying of. The body can fail in ways that are extremely distressing, slowly and painfully, demanding much stoicism, or it can switch off with little more than a flash of dizziness. In my family we seem to have been uncommonly lucky in that respect. There was the 82-year-old uncle who was at a meet of the Norwich Stag Hounds, enjoying a drink with friends, when crash! And he fell off his horse, dead. There was the cousin in her eighties who fell dead as she was filling a kettle to make tea, and the other cousin, 98, who slipped away so gently that the sister who was holding her hand didn’t realise that she had stopped breathing. There was my mother, a week before her 96th birthday, who had one nasty day which, to my relief, she couldn’t remember the next morning, then slept her way out after speaking her last words, “It was absolutely divine,” about a recent drive to a beloved place. My father, alas, had a whole week of unhappiness after a blood-vessel in his brain had ruptured. He looked up as one came through the door, obviously about to greet one, then when he found he couldn’t speak, his expression became one of pain and puzzlement: he understood that something was badly amiss but he didn’t know what it was. The moment of his dying, however, was sudden and painless. My brother was the only person near me who clearly resented death, and that was because he had achieved a way of life which suited him so perfectly that he wanted more. He was not frightened of it. “No one after 80 has any right to complain about death,” he had said to me not long before.

That fortunate record makes me believe that although it would be unwise to expect an easy dying, it is not unreasonable to hope for one. As for after it, I feel quite strongly that I would like my ashes to be scattered or buried in a place I love (I scattered my mother’s in her garden – and the old man who tended it for her when she could no longer do it herself said “Cor! That won’t half make the flowers grow”). But such a feeling, though strong, is really absurd, because what does it matter to the dead how their bodies are disposed of? It is for the mourners to do what suits them best.


A little while ago I took part in a television programme about death that was designed by the photographer Rankin, to help him overcome his fear of it, to which he bravely admitted. Whether it served his purpose or not I don’t know – possibly not, because that fear is brewed in the guts, not in the mind – and I remember a man I once knew who suffered from it so badly that he told me he used to wake up in the night and have to telephone his sister and beg her to come round. “What did she do?” I asked, and he said she made tea and talked sense, but it didn’t do much good because the thought of all those bloody silly birds still twittering and those bastards walking up and down the street when he wasn’t there to see them drove him mad. But even if Rankin’s programme failed to make him feel better, which I hope was not the case, it was excellent, and many viewers responded to it with enthusiasm. I had already understood from the response to my own book, Somewhere Towards the End, that the taboo on the subject of death, so heavy in my youth, was evaporating, and this was a striking example of how true this is. Even teenagers joined willingly in discussion of it.

The contributor to the programme I remember with the most pleasure is the man who said that not existing for thousands and thousands of years before his birth had never worried him for a moment, so why should going back into non-existence at this death cause him dismay? Everyone laughed when he said that and so did I, and as I laughed I thought: “Dead right!”

Why not ask whether heterosexuality exists? Are there truly people out there who are so disgusted by the same sex that they’ve never had a dream, a thought, a moment of desire for another person of the same sex? If so, why do these people have such a revulsion? Is it cultural? Is it biological? Both? We take heterosexuality for granted, but we still don’t know if it truly exists. All primates (with the exception of humans) are bisexual. Bonobos and chimpanzees especially. In human societies that are not corrupted by homophobia or biphobia (see Greeks, Canaanites, and various modern tribes), the people are bisexual. I think heterosexuality should be assumed to be a cultural invention until proven otherwise.
— Kevin Johnston

(Source: dasenergi, via bespookytogether)

Link: What will we do if the system can no longer create jobs? An interview with Anselm Jappe

A 2013 interview with Anselm Jappe in which he discusses the crisis of the society of labor, the logic of the commodity and exchange value and its disastrous consequences for an increasingly larger part of humanity, and perspectives for positive social change. 

What will we do if the system can no longer create jobs? An interview with Anselm Jappe – Alexandra Prado Coelho

According to the philosopher Anselm Jappe, who has come to Lisbon to give a talk at the Teatro Maria Matos, in capitalism we are defined by our relation to labor. But the system is a “house of cards that is beginning to collapse”. It is time to rethink the concept of labor.

Capitalism distorts the idea of labor, disconnecting it from society’s real needs. We work at an increasingly faster pace merely to feed the logic of the system. But the latter seems to have entered a self-destructive stage because, with the exclusion of ever more people from the labor market, there are increasingly more people who are also excluded from consumption, says the philosopher Anselm Jappe, who was born in 1962 in Germany and now lives in France and Italy.

Jappe—who has three books that have been published in Portugal by Antigona press, including The Adventures of the Commodity (2006)—is giving a talk next Tuesday, the 23rd, at the Teatro Maria Matos, as part of the Transition Lecture Series. In his presentation (which will be delivered in Portuguese) moderated by António Guerreiro, Jappe will explain why we must rethink the concept of labor.

Alexandra Prado Coelho (AC): Your talk is entitled, “After the End of Labor: Is Humanity Becoming Superfluous?” Is the end of labor on our horizon?

Anselm Jappe (AJ): This claim would have amazed most people a few decades ago, because modern society is by definition a society of labor, in which always more people are put to work. According to this logic, however, labor is not something that has always existed.

AC: How long has it existed?

AJ: In Antiquity, there was no word for “labor” that would have embraced all forms of activity. It would have been impossible to imagine, for example, that the activity of a priest, a peasant, or a slave would have all been considered to be labor. Each activity served to realize an end. What mattered was this end—to have things to eat, to perform services for God, to undertake a military campaign, etc. What mattered was the satisfaction of a need and labor was the means to obtain that satisfaction.

With industrial society, on the other hand, we work as much as possible because it is labor that gives us money, and all the satisfactions of needs only come later. It is always necessary to work more in order to increase production. Work is an expenditure of energy that is measured by time. If I make a table or teach a college class, these are two completely different things, but I can always say that, “I worked one hour”. This time is expressed in a quantity of money.

AC: Which is valued differently, in the case of the labor of a university professor or a blue collar worker.

AJ: One hour of labor by a specialized worker can be worth more than one hour of labor by a non-specialized worker. It is a quantitative difference, but it has nothing to do with the content of what is produced.

We have an industrial society that is based on the use of machines and technology, which serve to economize on labor. It would be logical that we should have to work less because we can have all of our needs satisfied with a minimum amount of activity. But what takes place is just the opposite. Today we work much more than ever before. All you need to do is to compare the pace of our lives and that of our grandparents.

Today, everything revolves around work. We can be workers or unemployed, but we are always defined by our relation to labor.

In the capitalist system, value is not given by the usefulness of things, but by the labor that was necessary for their manufacture. The more we work to make something, the more value is conferred upon the product. The wealth of the capitalist comes from making us work more than is necessary, which Marx called surplus-value.

On the other hand, capitalism makes labor the fuel of social life. In all previous societies, this social life was based things like the direct rule of an individual, ideas of honor or religious ideas. In modern society we are all defined by labor.

In the last few decades, however, labor is beginning to run out of steam. There is a constantly diminishing amount of work due to technological development. This could be good news—we could work less and have all we need. But just the opposite has taken place. People are losing their jobs, there is no real redistribution of activity, and those who are unemployed are also removed from consumption.

AC: Which is contrary to the logic of the system.

AJ: Yes, those who can no longer work can no longer have money with which to consume. This is a kind of self-abolition of capitalism. In a factory, a shirt is manufactured in five minutes, whereas previously an artisan required an hour to make a shirt. This means that there is less labor invested in a shirt. In a rational society, we would say, “we are going to make the same shirt as before, but we shall make it by working only five minutes”. But it is exactly the opposite that happens: the worker is compelled to work more, to make more shirts, and then it is necessary to sell them. If more and more is produced, it is in order to counteract the fact that in each commodity less labor is invested and therefore the surplus-value is correspondingly reduced. 

AC: But it is not always the case that by replacing humans by machines, value is withdrawn from the final product. If I want to buy a cup of coffee, it could either be served to me by a person or I could get it from a machine, but I still pay the same amount of money for it. 

AJ: And that is precisely where the contradiction lies—if a business replaces a worker with a machine, it will make more money because the machine costs less to operate. People pay the same amount for their coffee as before, but the business spends less money on wages. But if every business does the same thing, it is the system itself that is the loser because there will be less utilization of labor power. The businesses are acting contrary to the interest of the system. It has been that way from the beginning.

AC: But nonetheless, machines make more free time for us to devote to other activities, eventually leading to greater usefulness.

AJ: That would be the ideal situation. But in the capitalist system, not all activities have exchange value, only those that can reproduce the invested capital. What we do for ourselves or our friends is not considered to be labor because it does not enter into the logic of the market. An activity that is useful for us or for others is very different from what is considered to be labor in the capitalist system. We can say about a couple, that he works in a factory, and that is labor, but the mother does not work, she is busy with the children and taking care of her elderly father-in-law. The definition of labor has nothing to do with the content of the activity.

AC: Are productive activities necessarily linked to the production of commodities?

AJ: No, but they have to enter into the cycle in which capital is reproduced. Take a factory, for instance: the worker makes a car, the car is sold on the market and this represents profit for the capitalist, and his labor is therefore productive labor. It is also necessary to clean the factory, but those who perform this service do not produce any profit, their work is only a necessary expense, which makes no contribution to profit, but quite the contrary.

AC: We have tended to view capitalism as a system that is nourished by some and imposed on others. But that is not the way you see it. 

AJ: Capitalism has an anonymous, impersonal logic. The capitalists only execute the laws of a system that is much bigger than they are. There is, of course, individual responsibility, but this is less important than the logic of the system as a whole. Today there is once again a marked tendency to think that the problem is that there is a group of people who are too greedy, the speculators, bankers, etc., who go too far and put the whole system, which is based on honest workers, at risk.

There is a tendency towards personalizing capitalism, a tendency that is also often found in movements like the Indignados or Occupy Wall Street. This could prove to be dangerous because it is somewhat reminiscent of what took place in the 1930s with the fascist system, in which social hatred was turned against a group of people, in that case, against Jewish financiers.

The real problem is that there is no distribution of activities in accordance with social needs, which is what a reasonable society would do, but there is simply this unqualified need to work to produce things that we have no use for. This is something that even the left largely ignores, because it is always so concerned with the question of social justice, with trying to discover why it is that some people make more money than other people.

AC: If people have a tendency to personalize, this is because it is very hard to fight against a faceless system.

AJ: It is easier to hit the streets to protest against the bankers. But it is also easy to say that we are only victims, when in fact we all play our parts in this system, in this logic.

AC: It seems hard to be outside of the system. 

AJ: Yes, we all participate, for example, in the logic of competition, it is something that has completely penetrated us. We are always trying to sell ourselves, to be stronger than the others, to have success on the market. We have completely absorbed the capitalist logic, which is not natural, because, in the past, competition played a very minor role in everyday life.

AC: But don’t you think that the idea that so much depends on our abilities, and that we are not condemned to a certain place, as in a caste system, is a good thing?

AJ: Modernity is presented as a kind of liberation in relation to the feudal system, but it is only an apparent freedom, because it is a destructive logic that leads people to do everything that they can do, and to consider the world as a kind of raw material they can use to realize their own aspirations. It is true that modernism has a dynamism that previous societies lacked, but this dynamism gradually became a kind of individualism that took hold of people in the western countries. 

We look after our own interests like entrepreneurs, as if we were always on the lookout for business opportunities. It is necessary to exercise in order to be in good form for work, or to go places where we can meet people who might be able to help us obtain another interesting job.

AC: But, at least theoretically, things depend more on our individual will.

AJ: The official ideology says that each person can make whatever they want of his or her life, that we are not determined by the fact that we were born in Sweden or in Africa, but in reality that is not how it is. It is not like in “Monopoly”, where everyone begins the game with the same amount of money. There is no equal opportunity.

But even if such equality were to exist, it would be necessary to ask ourselves what it is that we want to do. A reasonable society would organize a collective agreement concerning what needs to be done so that we can live well, and then it would think about how to optimize its activities with the minimum possible amount of effort, so that each person can do his part for the collective life, and then during the rest of the time devote himself to doing whatever he wants.

AC: Is there any place outside the system?

AJ: It is obvious that this situation is causing us more and more suffering. The people who work suffer, we hear more and more about suicides linked to work, there is an enormous amount of pressure in the big corporations, everyone knows that within the next year half the employees will be laid off, so then everyone works like madmen in order to please that god called the logic of profitability. And those who do not work suffer because they are socially devalued.

There is presently a wide range of initiatives underway linked to the de-growth movement, alternative economies, local barter networks, or groups seeking to return to the rural areas, exchange networks between organic producers. I have often criticized them, but I think that, at least, they show a real interest in finding a way that is not just an alternative management of the same industrial society based on money.

For a long time, the left limited itself to proposing a more just distribution of the same contents. Today, there is at least an attempt to go beyond this. But there are always other social forces that, to the contrary, continue to want to snatch the last crumb of this cake that is always getting smaller.

AC: Is capitalism dying?

AJ: The human being is very often not profitable from the system’s point of view, and this means that he is also going to be deprived of the power to consume. In Europe some money is still distributed to those who are no longer profitable, but there is also enormous pressure to cut and cut some more. There is a feeling that there are people who are superfluous from the system’s point of view. For Germany, Greece is becoming a superfluous country. And in some countries there are entire layers of the population that no longer know what to do.

AC: Governments are talking about a return to growth, everyone wants to export to the new emerging markets.

AJ: Everyone wants to export, no one wants to import. But it is not possible to have a world in which everyone exports and no one imports. What has been called the Chinese economic miracle is also based on exports, above all to the US. If the small countries enter into the liberal logic of exports, the results are catastrophic. There are countries in Africa that once produced enough to feed themselves—they lived modestly, but with enough—and that then wiped everything in the name of exports, today they only produce bananas and if the market for bananas suddenly collapses, their entire economies will collapse.

It is necessary for us to free ourselves from this idea of producing first of all for a world market.

AC: Globalization brings us closer to other cultures. If we close ourselves off in our villages….

AJ: Global mobility is very much a one-way affair. Never before in Europe were the borders as closely guarded against the outside as they are now. There is one kind of mobility for tourists, and another kind of mobility for those who have to relocate in search of work. 

A return to the Nation-State is not an alternative—to me this seems to be a very dangerous ideology. A post-capitalist society must have an everyday basis in local realities; we should eat apples that are grown in the nearby orchard rather than in New Zealand. This, of course, would not prevent cultural and intellectual communication with people who live in other regions. There are people who choose to work less and reduce their material needs, organizing with others in order to enjoy a satisfying life that does not necessarily require the purchase of products or services.

AC: But you said that you were also critical of these movements. Why?

AJ: Because they think that it is enough to limit themselves to these measures. Buying our products from organic producers could be a first step.

AC: What would be the second step?

AJ: A social movement that would directly occupy the workshops and the factories. Capitalism is abandoning many productive forces, because they are no longer profitable, but they are still capable of functioning effectively.

AC: You are talking about occupations, community management, it sounds like April 25.

AJ: There is a historical memory that is worth recovering. Obviously, we are not going to start from scratch.

AC: But the system rapidly integrates these experiences.

AJ: But that does not necessarily imply that everything will happen the same way, because today the system is much weaker. Today we are living in times that are very different from the 1970s and 1980s. The system is in retreat. Those who have a place in the production-consumption cycle are constantly declining in numbers, even in the wealthiest countries. There are ever greater numbers of people who have no place in the system. If a factory was abandoned because of corporate relocation, it is possible to seize it and use it to make useful things.

AC: Such a change would require some kind of previous social conflict. It would require a large number of people.

AJ: I see another danger in such a movement—it could easily turn into a kind of management of poverty. Poverty is increasing and the State might very well give a piece of social management to this kind of alternative economy, saying: “take care of your own problems”.

It is truly a bizarre sight, for example, to see people who go to the markets and stores after they close to forage for discarded produce. This is being turned into a valorization of day-to-day survival that is absurd if it is extended to the global social level where such immense waste takes place. The idea of voluntary simplicity might pave the way for a discourse of the valorization of poverty.

AC: To create a post-capitalist system should we use previous models or is it necessary to invent everything?

AJ: Capitalism has failed to fulfill so many of its promises that we now find, among some milieus, a kind of nostalgia for a return to the past. But it is certain that we cannot go back, there is too great a risk of violent archaisms. It is clear that the solution can only be found by going forward. We can have a satisfying life with a much-reduced production in relation to what we have today.

AC: You see the ideal future as a world in which people work less, work is more rationally distributed….

AJ: … In which needs are defined, what we want to do in life and how we can do it with the least possible effort. It is necessary to begin to think on the basis of the results rather than on that of labor. Many of today’s needs are compensations for labor. A life dedicated only to labor is so unsatisfying that it is necessary to have subsequent compensations, television, cars, tourism, computer games.

AC: To what extent is this change currently taking place in politics?

AJ: When we think of politics, we think of the idea that the State must guarantee a better distribution of things. But we see that politics is not the solution, because it is structurally dependent on money. Since there is less money available for the State to distribute, the State has increasingly less power. The left, the “alter-globalists”, always call for a bigger role for the State. As if capital were the negative pole and the State the positive one. But if the State can no longer collect taxes, it no longer has anything to redistribute.

AC: Without a State, how can we guarantee protection for the most disadvantaged? Would there not be a risk that the logic of the locality would lead to village charity? 

AJ: The welfare State is still very young and is already beginning to be gradually dismantled everywhere. There are many States that have practically no public services. We would only be deceiving ourselves if we think that social concerns are at the heart of the State.

AC: What kind of social organization do you advocate?

AJ: Self-organization based on the neighborhoods in the cities, small units that make the decisions concerning their own lives, and then organize on a federal level with other communities. At this time, capitalism is a house of cards that is beginning to collapse. It is not possible to say how long it will take it to fall, but the signs are becoming increasingly more evident.

The Gaslamp Killer - Anything Worse (from My Troubled Mind)

Zomby - Ascension (from With Love)

Link: Preemptive Personalization

Nicholas Carr’s forthcoming The Glass Cage, about the ethical dangers of automation, inspired me to read George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), which contains a lengthy tirade against the notion of progress as efficiency and convenience. Orwell declares that “the tendency of mechanical progress is to make life safe and soft.” It assumes that a human being is “a kind of walking stomach” that is interested only in passive pleasure rather than work: “whichever way you turn there will be some machine cutting you off from the chance of working — that is, of living.” Convenience is social control, and work, for Orwell at least, is the struggle to experience a singular life. But the human addiction to machine-driven innovation and automation, he predicts, fueled apparently by a fiendish inertia that demands progress for progress’s sake, will inevitably lead to total disempowerment and dematerialization:

There is really no reason why a human being should do more than eat, drink, sleep, breathe, and procreate; everything else could be done for him by machinery. Therefore the logical end of mechanical progress is to reduce the human being to something resembling a brain in a bottle.

Basically, he sees the Singularity coming and he despises it as a “frightful subhuman depth of softness and helplessness.” And there is no opting-out:

In a healthy world there would be no demand for tinned foods, aspirins, gramophones, gaspipe chairs, machine guns, daily newspapers, telephones, motor-cars, etc., etc.; and on the other hand there would be a constant demand for the things the machine cannot produce. But meanwhile the machine is here, and its corrupting effects are almost irresistible. One inveighs against it, but one goes on using it.

This “brain in the bottle” vision of our automated future, Orwell surmises, is why people of the 1930s were wary of socialism, which he regards as being intimately connected ideologically with the theme of inevitable progress. That connection has of course been severed; socialism tends to be linked with nostalgia and tech’s “thought leaders” tend to champion libertarianism and cut-throat competitive practices abetted by technologically induced asymmetries, all in the name of “innovation” and “disruption.”

Oddly, Orwell argues that the profit motive is an impediment to technological development:

Given a mechanical civilization the process of invention and improvement will always continue, but the tendency of capitalism is to slow it down, because under capitalism any invention which does not promise fairly immediate profits is neglected; some, indeed, which threaten to reduce profits are suppressed almost as ruthlessly as the flexible glass mentioned by Petronius … Establish Socialism—remove the profit principle—and the inventor will have a free hand. The mechanization of the world, already rapid enough, would be or at any rate could be enormously accelerated.

Orwell seems to imagine a world with a fixed amount of needs, which technology will allow to be fulfilled at the expense of less labor; he imagines technology will make useful things more durable rather than making the utility we seek more ephemeral. But technology, as directed by the profit motive, makes obsolescence into a form of innovation; it generates new wants and structures disposability as convenience rather than waste. Why maintain and repair something when you can throw it away and shop for a replacement — especially when shopping is accepted to be a fun leisure activity?

While Orwell is somewhat extreme in his romanticizing of hard work — he sounds downright reactionary in his contempt for “laziness,” and can’t conceive of something as banal as shopping as a rewarding, self-defining effort for anyone — people today seem anything but wary about technological convenience, even though it is always paired with intensified surveillance. (The bathetic coverage of Apple’s marketing events seems to reflect an almost desperate enthusiasm for whatever “magical” new efficiencies the company will offer.) Socialism would be far more popular if people really thought it was about making life easier.

Orwell associated automation with socialism’s utopian dreams, and thought the flabbiness of those dreams would drive people to fascism. Looking back, it seems more plausible to argue that automation has become a kind of gilded fascism that justifies itself and its barbarities with the efficiencies machines enable. Though we sometimes still complain about machines deskilling us, we have nonetheless embraced once unimaginable forms of automation, permitting it to be extended into how we form a conception of ourselves, how we come to want anything at all.

One might make this case for automation’s insidious infiltration into our lives: First, technology deskilled work, making us machine monitors rather than craft workers; then it deskilled consumption, prompting us to prefer “tinned food” to some presumably more organic alternative. Now, with the tools of data collection and algorithmic processing, it deskills self-reflection and the formation of desire. We get preemptive personalization, as when sites like Facebook and Google customize your results without your input. “Personalization” gets stretched to the point where it leaves out the will of the actual person involved. How convenient! So glad that designers and engineers are making it easier for me to want things without having to make the effort of actually thinking to want them. Desire is hard.

Preemptive personalization is seductive only because of the pressure we experience to make our identities unique — to win the game of having a self by being “more original” than other people. That goal stems in part from the social media battlefield, which itself reflects a neoliberal emphasis on entrepreneurializing the self, regarding oneself as leading an enterprise, not living a life. If “becoming yourself” was ever a countercultural goal, it isn’t anymore. (That’s why Gap can build an ad campaign around the proposition “Dress Normal.” Trying to be distinctive has lost its distinction.) It’s mandatory that we have a robust self to express, that we create value by innovating on that front. Otherwise we run the risk of becoming economic leftovers.

Yet becoming “more unique” is an impossible, nonsensical goal for self-actualization: self-knowledge probably involves coming to terms with how generic our wants and needs and thoughts are, and how dependent they are on the social groups within which we come to know ourselves, as opposed to some procedure of uncovering their pure idiosyncrasy. The idea that self-becoming or self-knowledge is something we’d want to make more “convenient” seems counterproductive. The effort to be a self is its own end. That is what Orwell seemed to think: “The tendency of mechanical progress, then, is to frustrate the human need for effort and creation.”

But since Orwell’s time, the mechanization process has increasingly become a mediatization/digitization process that can be rationalized as an expansion of humans’ ability to create and express themselves. Technological development has emphasized customization and personalization, allowing us to use consumer goods as language above and beyond their mere functionality. (I’ll take my iWatch in matte gray please!) Social media are the farthest iteration of this, a personalized infosphere in which our interaction shapes the reality we see and our voice can directly reach potentially vast audiences.

But this seeming expansion of our capacity to express ourselves in in the service of data-capture and surveillance; we embed ourselves in communication platforms that allow our expression to be used to curtail our horizons. Preemptive personalization operates under the presumption we are eager to express ourselves only so that we may be done with the trouble of it once and for all, once what we would or should say can be automated and we can simply reap the social benefits of our automatic speech.

Social media trap us in a tautological loop, in which we express ourselves to be ourselves to express ourselves, trying to claim better attention shares from the people we are ostensibly “connecting” with. Once we are trying to “win” the game of selfhood on the scoreboard of attention, any pretense of expressing an “inner truth” (which probably doesn’t exist anyway) about ourselves becomes lost in the rush to churn out and absorb content. It doesn’t matter what we say, or if we came up with it, when all that matters is the level of response. In this system, we don’t express our true self in search of attention and confirmation; instead attention posits the true self as a node in a dynamic network, and the more connections that run through it, the more complete and “expressed” that self is.

When we start measure the self, concretely, in quantified attention and the density of network connectivity rather than in terms of the nebulous concept of “effort,” it begins to make sense to accept algorithmic personalization, which reports the self to us as something we can consume. The algorithm takes the data and spits out a statistically unique self for us, that lets us consume our uniqueness as as a kind of one-of-a-kind delicacy. It masks from us the way our direct relations with other people shape who are, preserving the fantasy we are sui generis. It protects us not only from the work of being somebody — all that tiring self-generated desire — but more insidiously from the emotion work of acknowledging and respecting the ways our actions have consequences for other people at very fundamental levels of their being. Automated selfhood frees us from recognizing and coping with our interdependency, outsourcing it to an algorithm.

The point of “being unique” has broadened; it is a consumer pleasure as well as a pseudo-accomplishment of self-actualization. So all at once, “uniqueness” (1) motivates content production for social-media platforms, (2) excuses intensified surveillance, and (3) allows filter bubbles to be imposed as a kind of flattery (which ultimately isolates us and prevents self-knowledge, or knowledge of our social relations). Uniqueness is as much a mechanism of control as an apparent expression of our distinctiveness. No wonder it’s been automated.

The problem is no longer getting people to express themselves, but providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don’t stop people from expressing themselves, but rather, force them to express themselves. What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, or ever rarer, the thing that might be worth saying.
— Gilles Deleuze, Mediators

(Source: allisonburtch, via astranemus)

Link: Naomi Klein's "This Changes Everything"

Suzanne Goldenberg: The climate-change movement is making little headway against corporate vested interests, says the author of Shock Doctrine. But how does she think her new book, This Changes Everything, will help galvanise people?

Naomi Klein is the star of the new American left. At 44, the writer and activist has twice written blockbusters combining ground-level reporting and economic analysis that challenged people to take a hard look at what they took for granted: their shopping choices, America’s place in the world, and the devastating effects of arcane trade policy and rampant free market ideology. Along the way she gained a following that spans academics, celebrities and street and factory protesters.

Her first book, No Logo, about the power of brands over sweatshop workers in Asia who made the products (and the consumers in America and Europe who consumed them), politicised a generation of twentysomethings. It became the handbook of the anti- globalisation protests, and inspired two Radiohead albums.

Seven years later, her second book, Shock Doctrine, analysed how wars, coups and natural disasters were used as a pretext to impose so-called “free market” measures. Now Klein is back, writing about capitalism, only this time the fate of the entire planet is at stake. With her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, Klein hopes to set off the kind of powerful mass movement that could – finally – produce the radical changes needed to avoid a global warming catastrophe and fix capitalism at the same time. She argues that we have all been thinking about the climate crisis the wrong way around: it’s about capitalism – not carbon – the extreme anti-regulatory version that has seized global economies since the 1980s and has set us on a course of destruction and deepening inequality.

“I think we are on a collision course,” she says. Twenty-five years ago, when the first climate scientist was called to testify to Congress and make global warming a policy challenge, there might have still been time for big industries to shrink their carbon footprints. But governments at the time were seized with the idea that there should be no restraints on industry. “During that time,” Klein writes, “we also expanded the road from a two lane, carbon-spewing highway to a six-lane superhighway.”

When we meet in her Toronto home, Klein is juggling a schedule that combines the standard author book readings and television interviews and planning for an event in New York City billed as the biggest climate march ever seen. Her husband, film-maker Avi Lewis, is out shooting a companion film due for release in January. The two text back and forth during our chat.

Klein does not easily fit into most people’s view of a committed environmentalist. She drives a car (it is a hybrid). She flies, already a lot more than most people, and is set to rack up air miles that would make her, by her own admission, “a climate criminal”. There is a brightly coloured plastic playhouse in the garden that was probably made in China. Yet she confesses to getting weepy when she thinks about the future under climate change.

In a long conversation over the dining table, Klein says she is not about to purge her life of plastics or fossil fuels. She says she is not going to be trapped into “gotcha games” about personal habits. And she is definitely not going to subscribe to the idea that climate change ranks above all other causes.

“I think there has been this really bad habit of environmentalists being insufferably smug, where they are sort of saying: ‘This is the issue that beats all other issues’ or, ‘Your issue doesn’t matter because nothing matters if the earth is fried.’” Klein says committed environmentalists aren’t her target anyway. “What I hope is less about what the greens will do, but what people who don’t consider themselves part of the green movement will do,” she says. “This book is not written for the environmental movement. It is written much more for people who would never read a book about climate change but are engaged with economic justice of other kinds.”

That is where Klein believes she can do the most good. “I want to act, if I can, as a bridge for people who read Shock Doctrine or No Logo. People who are sitting out for whatever reasons.”

Klein admits that even with her reputation for producing brainy economic analysis, and a crack research team to which she gives generous credit in the book and in conversation, it took three years of “marinating” in the material. “I have amazing research help. Basically what I spend my money on is research,” she says. “The way in which people talk about climate is just so wonky and so abstract and such a boys’ club that it makes a lot of women just roll their eyes or feel that they are somehow not qualified,” she says. “I certainly had to fight that feeling in myself in order to write about it.”

The idea of writing about climate change took hold of Klein around the time of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit – legendary now as a failure of international diplomacy. The summit of world leaders, convening soon after the US had its first “green president” in Barack Obama, was supposed to put the major economies on a glide path to cutting emissions.

Klein came to the meeting planning to write about the great fight between rich and poor countries over the historic responsibility the US and Europe bore for causing climate change. She had dared to hope at one point that a climate deal would be the great equaliser – compensating Africa and Asia for colonialism. But the summit collapsed under the weight of those expectations. Leaders from Africa and small south Pacific Island states, which are slowly drowning under rising sea levels, wanted a more aggressive action that would limit the temperature rise to 1.5C; leaders from rich countries deemed the proposal bad for businesses and rejected it for fear it could cost them votes.

“I wasn’t prepared for the naming of that inaction by the industrialised world as racism,” Klein says. “I was struck by the fact that African delegates were using words such as genocide, describing a two-degree temperature target as allowing Africa to burn.” She pauses. “I found the Copenhagen experience pretty devastating.”

It was a difficult time for Klein personally as well. After the publication of Shock Doctrine, she was on the road for almost two years. She barely saw her husband. While she was travelling the world giving speeches and being hailed as an inspirational figure, Klein found herself in a rut. “I think I was profoundly depressed about 2008-2009,” she says. “I have always told myself that I would not spread hopelessness.” There are figures on the American left who just get up on stage and do these doom and apocalyptic presentations and it can be quite compelling. But I have seen it enough that I have told myself that if I ever get to that point, I will stay home.” She became convinced it was time to retreat, at least for a while. “I just didn’t feel that I had anything to offer, where I wasn’t just indulging my own despair.”

There were other difficulties. Klein writes in the book of the surprising realisation that she did want children after all, and of her struggles through what she calls the “fertility factory” and miscarriages before she finally became pregnant. Her son, Toma, turned two this summer. The book is dedicated to him. But as she was preparing for publication, Klein was diagnosed, and operated on, for thyroid cancer; she says flatly she will not discuss the illness beyond that.

For readers of Klein’s earlier works – or of Thomas Piketty’s analysis of inequality – the central message of the book will sound familiar. Capitalism, since it was unshackled by the deregulation of the 1980s, has widened the gap between rich and poor. The top 3% held 55% of all wealth last year, up from 45% in 1989. The bottom 90% controlled 24.7% of wealth, according to statistics released this month by the Federal Reserve.

“It is not like everything is fine except for the problem that the temperature is going up a little bit,” Klein says. “If the only problem with capitalism was this slight temperature increase, we would really be cooked. But the fact is that there are lots of problems with this system, and on top of all of those problems, it is destabilising our planet’s life support system.”

Klein believes the gap between the 1% and everyone else and the powerlessness of local governments to take control are casualties of global capital. To follow the course of action she prescribes would require a hostile takeover of large parts of the environmental movement. But that would be entirely warranted, it seems. Environmental groups have wasted time trying to recruit big business and billionaires to adopt pro-climate measures, she says. In the meantime, economies have continued to spew out carbon pollution, making a climate fix far more difficult.

“We need an ideological battle. It is still considered politically unthinkable just to introduce straight-up, polluter-pays punitive measures – particularly in the US.” To Klein, environmentalists should have just gone to war on business, and on the whole concept of capitalism.

In a devastating chapter, she details how the US’s biggest environmental group, the Nature Conservancy, earned money from oil and gas drilling on a parcel of Texas land it had set aside for conservation. She writes about the nightmarish scenarios surrounding geoengineering, or hacking the planet, by spraying seawater into the sky to create cloud cover, or simulating a volcanic eruption to fill the lower atmosphere with ash.

Elsewhere, Klein takes on Richard Branson for failing to live up to his promise to set aside $3bn to fight climate change. “So much hope was put in this parade of billionaires to try and reconcile capitalism with climate,” she says. “When Branson entered the climate game, he posited it specifically as an alternative to regulation. He said ‘the governments aren’t going to do this, we’re going to do this. Go to the UN climate summit in a couple of weeks and it’s all going to be the new green economy and the head of Bank of America sitting down with the president of Mexico – and we are all going to do it together.’” She remains irritated. “That is a dangerous idea at this stage of history. We now have two decades to measure that model. We are not talking about a theory here, we are talking about a track record. I think it’s fair to say: ‘OK, we tried it your way and we don’t have another decade to waste.”

In truth, Klein is vague in her book and our conversation about exactly how this would come about. In the book she talks about “an effervescent moment” – when popular protests converge to bring about real change – which comes after a section in the book titled “Magical Thinking”. There is a curious failure to really get to grips with questions about a real-world solution – Klein must have anticipated being asked. Especially given that she has often been acutely focused on what popular movements need to do to bring about concrete change; her message to Occupy, for instance, was that the movement needed to impose clear structures and institutions. If capitalism is going to destroy the world, why wouldn’t capitalism fix itself – if only for its own survival?

“I don’t know if capitalism wants anything. The system itself doesn’t think as an entity – it thinks as a collection of self-interested profit-seeking units.” Asked why Obama is such a peripheral figure in her book, Klein is ambiguous. “I do think Obama is interesting but more in the sense of an absence,” she says. “Obama should have used the economic bailout of 2009 to impose new rules on car companies,” she says. (In fact, Obama used the bailout to spend up to $100bn on home retrofits, subways, and other climate-friendly measures. Klein overlooks these entirely.) “The fact that Obama blew that moment, to me, is one of the great tragedies of our times.”

The fix she proposes broadly relies on scattered groups of climate organisers, grassroots and indigenous people’s groups that have been ready to take on corporate power in a way that Big Green is not. Klein admits that most environmental groups are too white, male, and middle class to connect with women, African-Americans, Latinos and the poor who will bear the brunt of climate change. She recalls that in their first manifestos, the Occupy protesters never even mentioned global warming.

Klein is on the board of one of those emerging grassroots groups: 350.orghas played a lead role in reframing a mundane pipeline project, the Keystone XL, until it was seen as one of the most critical environmental decisions of Obama’s presidency. The Keystone XL project, meant to transport tar sands crude from the vast Alberta tar sands, would probably be well on its way to completion, if the protests by and Nebraska landowners had not made the project a national issue. Obama has repeatedly put off making a decision about the pipeline. But the deciding factor in that delay was almost certainly the wealthy Democratic donors pushing behind the scenes, and threatening to cut off election funding.

Even so, Klein continues to sees the Keystone fight, widespread local protests against fracking and campus divestment campaigns as the way forward on climate change. She argues there is little scope for individuals on their own to accomplish much, giving the examples of Toronto’s impressive carbon-cutting efforts. “It’s been kind of disastrous,” she says. “While we are all doing these green things, our country’s emissions are soaring because of the tar sands. People start feeling kind of like jerks. We are just sort of like suckers.”

She goes so far as to lump centrist environmental leaders together with groups such as the Heartland Institute, which denies the existence of climate change. “Between the Heartlanders who recognise that climate change is a profound threat to our economic and social systems and therefore deny its scientific reality, and those who claim climate change requires only minor tweaks to business-as-usual and therefore allow themselves to believe in its reality, it’s not clear who is more deluded,” Klein writes in the book.

Those are fighting words. Over the past few years, the oil and coal lobbies and, increasingly, super-rich ultra-conservatives in America have spent close to $1bn a year building a network of rightwing organisations that have blocked efforts to cut the emissions that cause climate change – often by claiming that climate change is not even happening. More than half of the Republicans elected to Congress now deny the existence of climate change.

There are already signs of a pushback on Twitter from some environmental bloggers, even before the book’s release. But Klein – who over the years has endured pro-corporate backlash of her two earlier books and a ferocious assault for criticising Israel’s conduct against the Palestinians, says she is ready for it. “I think I have been through attacks that are far more personal and far more intense than what I am going to experience with this book.”

She says she sees a new breed of climate activist, ready to go after corporate power in a way that Big Green is not. “They are going after the fossil fuel companies directly as opposed to just trying to go into business with them and gently cajole them into doing the right thing,” she says.

At the same time she argues there has been a shift in attitudes about how people treat one another.

“I am not in despair. I am excited by what I am seeing. I think that the task is enormous. I think we are nowhere close to where we need to be, but I think we are on a track. There is a track,” she says.

• This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein is published by Allen Lane on 16 September.

Link: Philosophy of Captivity

Lori Gruen is a leading feminist philosopher who asks deep questions about the ethics of captivity, ethics, animals and what we’re doing to nature. She thinks that human exceptionalism is a prejudice, that considering marginal cases helpful in seeing why, is skeptical about intuitions about far fetched cases digging up important ethical insights, that two big issues concerning ethics and animals are captivity and industrial animal agriculture, thinks ecotourism is complicated, has problems with holisic approaches to environmental ethics, thinks women have it tough, that the ethics of captivity are both complex and have had little philosophical treatment, that self-direction matters when considering how we treat animals, that ideas of a wild free of human management is unrealistic, and that some captivity is necessary. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there…

3:AM: A recent book of yours looks at ethics and animals. You begin by looking at the position of human exceptionalism, something that goes back to at least Aristotle. What is the position, and is it a kind of default position for those who just don’t think we should think about animals ethically?

LG: Human exceptionalism is a prejudice that not only sees humans as different from other animals but that also sees humans as better than other animals. Of course humans are unique in a variety of ways, although those differences are often articulated based on naïve views about other animals. In Ethics and Animals, I explore some of the claims that have been made to differentiate humans from other animals (that we are the only beings that use tools or that use language or that have a theory of mind) and show that they do not establish that humans are unique in the ways postulated. But I also discuss the ways that other animals are indeed different from us and different from each other. These differences are important for understanding them and for promoting, or at least not negatively impacting, their well being. 

Human exceptionalism also underlies skepticism about including other animals in the sphere of moral concern. It is related to two other views that are discussed more often in the literature about moral considerability – speciesism and anthropocentrism. Speciesism is the view that I only owe moral consideration to members of my own species. Although this view is usually thought to be focused on humans, it seems consistent with the view that only Vulcans matter to members of that species, or only orangutans matter to that species. Anthopocentrism is the view that humans are at the center of everything and that everything is understood through our human interpretive lenses. Of course we humans experience everything as humans, so in some sense humans are necessarily the center of our own perceptions, but that doesn’t mean we are unable to try to understand or care about non-humans. There is a sense in which we are inevitable anthropocentrists, but we needn’t be human exceptionalists. 

Human exceptionalism sees humans as the only beings worthy of moral concern. Normative exceptionalist arguments generally fail in one of two ways—they pick out a supposedly unique characteristic or property upon which moral worth is supposed to supervene but it turns out that either not all humans have that property or that humans aren’t the only ones that have it. 

3:AM: Are marginal cases relevant?

LG: And this is why marginal cases are relevant. If there are some humans who do not have the morally valuable traits that the human exceptionalist prize, but they are nonetheless included in the group of those who do have the traits, then this suggests that it isn’t that trait that is morally important, but species membership. But membership in a species isn’t morally interesting and assigning moral significance to membership in a species amounts to a prejudice in favor of those thought to be in one’s group. I myself am uncomfortable with the “marginal” cases terminology, but it is a remnant of the human exceptionalist view that promotes the idea that all humans fit neatly into a category based on morally worthy properties that only humans share, when there are no such properties.

3:AM: Why is the ethical case about animals so important? If you want to stop people being nasty to animals then aren’t there things other than morals you could or should appeal to? Couldn’t taste do the job ie we ought squash bugs because it’s disgusting? Or it’s unfashionable now, so nineteenth century etc?

LG: The magnitude of the harms done to animals is almost incomprehensible — 60 billion suffer before they are slaughtered for food in global industrial agricultural production annually and that contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector, which in turn is wreaking havoc on animal habitats on land and in the sea. When we also consider the additional threats that other animals face from human activities, it becomes clearer that the problems are structural and remedies cannot solely rely on individual tastes. But there are some really hard philosophical questions about what, if anything, individuals can do to help curtail these harms. 

Consider what sometimes gets called the “impotence problem.” When one goes out to eat and orders bbq chicken rather than a veggie burger, the chicken isn’t slaughtered-to-order, so buying the veggie burger doesn’t save any particular chicken’s life. It seems that whatever one orders, it doesn’t really have an effect either way on whether chickens suffer and die in food production. But surely individual actions must have some impact since if everybody abstained from eating chickens that would make a very large difference to very large number of chickens. This is one sort of problem Derek Parfit discusses in Reasons and Persons and Shelley Kagan and others have taken up by considering the impacts of our choices on other animals. Though I won’t rehearse some of the proposed solutions to the problem here, what I want to mention is that when we are exploring the bad consequences of complex systems, ethical and political analyses are crucial.

In saying that, I don’t want to completely dismiss the role that taste and disgust can play in perhaps making people aware of an ethical problem and motivating and sustaining people to stop harming others. But to my mind, taste and disgust, which are themselves shaped by cultural and social norms as well as idiosyncratic personal histories, are not particularly reliable and in the face of mass harms and injustice, are not always helpful.

3:AM: How important is it for people arguing for animals to be treated ethically to know what is happening to them? Your book is really full of information about this – is there a sense that you feel people who resist the ethical stance are ignorant of current problems?

LG: I’ve always been puzzled by the way that some moral philosophers create extraordinarily far fetched examples and then ask us to see what sorts of intuitions we have about these cases. I am skeptical that any intuitions we might dig up contain important ethical insights. But I’m also puzzled by those who argue from abstract general principles, for example, about the unethical treatment of causing other animals to suffer or fail to flourish, without knowing many details about particular animals and what might constitute their well-being. Having specific details are crucial for making ethical judgments. So, I think we should try to engage in some version of the process Rawls’ called reflective equilibrium in which we consider the details as we understand them (and we should also be reflective about what we see as details to start with), our intuitions, and our more general ethical and political commitments. 

Having details about the general treatment of other animals combined with particular cases promotes the reflective process. But there is more needed than just knowing what is happening to them. I think an under theorized part of our ethical lives relationships – what relationships are we in, what is the nature and quality of those relationships, and what obligations those relationships generate? Once we see that we are in relationships with specific animal others and come to understand how our actions impact individuals and their conspecifics, we can view our responsibility or complicity differently. Nobody wants to be in a bad relationship, so part of what I do in my work is include descriptions of these relationships in ways that allow for re-consideration.

One of the central ideas that I have been developing is what I call “entangled empathy” which is a type of moral perception directed at attending to the well-being of others. Very briefly, the “entanglement” part of the idea is based on a recognition that we are in all sorts of inextricable relationships with one another. The “empathy” part is not the standard form of moral emotion often discussed in the literature, but rather it refers to a perceptive skill that involves affect and cognition. Entangled empathy is developed by having a fuller picture of what is happening to others, coming to discern what the interests of others may be, imagining how those interests are experienced, and figuring out how our actions directly and indirectly impact another’s well-being. 

3:AM: So what are some of the key contemporary issues that help mobilise ethical arguments towards animals?

LG: There are two current issues – captivity and industrial animal agriculture — that have generated a lot of attention to animals of late and that have lead to questions about our obligations to them, to ourselves, and to the rest of nature. The issue of keeping animals captive in zoos and aquaria has become a pressing topic again. The movie Blackfish that looks behind the scenes at Sea World, the plight of elephants and polar bears suffering in unnatural conditions in zoos, and the practice of publicly killing animals at zoos in Europe have lead to renewed discussion of questions about liberty, conservation, individual well-being vs. species protection, and reproductive freedom. (see my oup blog and Ethics of Captivity).

In addition, as concerns about climate change become more pressing, awareness of the destructive contribution from industrialized food production has lead many people to reevaluate what they eat. The United Nations conservatively estimates that roughly 18% of the total greenhouse gases emitted come from industrialized livestock production, more greenhouse gas emissions than all transportion—planes, trains, and cars—combined. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made an explicit call urging individuals to “Please eat less meat—meat is a very carbon intensive commodity… .”
More people are giving up animal products once they recognize that personal taste can’t justify harms to other animals, the environment, and future generations. Of course, as human populations grow and wealth accumulates, more animals then ever before are being threatened and killed. Ethical arguments that convince individuals only go so far and there is a dire need for ethical engagement that can impact policy.

3:AM: You take a nuanced approach to ecotourism? Why not condemn it outright?

LG: Ecotourism is a complicated issue. On the one hand there are places where ecotourism has raised awareness of the complex ethical issues that arise in contexts in which animal well-being, environmental protection, and human flourishing come into direct conflict and ecotourism provides one mechanism for minimizing these conflicts. It also often motivates the “tourists” to work on behalf of protecting wild animals and their habitats. Coming face to face (so to speak) with an animal in her natural environment can deepen one’s sense of responsibility. On the other hand, ecotourism has the potential to further instrumentalize other animals and perpetuate problematic arrogant attitudes about human relationships with the more than human world. I don’t think a sound ethical judgment can be made about ecotourism unless the context is fully explored.

3:AM: You are unhappy with holistic approaches to environmental ethics. First of all, can you say what you mean by ‘holistic’ in this context, and who are the main proponents?

LG: Holism in environmental ethics is the view that value lies in whole systems rather than individual parts of the system or particular members of the community.  Aldo Leopold, a holist who developed “the land ethic,” argued that an action is right when it preserves and protects “the integrity, stability, and beauty” of an ecological community because integrity, stability, and beauty are the locus of value. In Ethics and Animals, I explore the complicated issue of anthropogenic extinctions through the lens of holism in the hopes that it might provide an answer to the question of why species are valuable. Holists view extinctions as, what one prominent holist, Holmes Rolston III, calls superkillings. Holists find that the value of species is more than the sum of the welfare of individual members of the species. The holist view allows that the death of individual members of a species would be justified if those deaths led to the betterment of the species as a whole and, by extension, the preservation of the species. 

3:AM: So what is the problem?

LG: There are a number of problems with holism of this sort. But my main worry is that they have a limited view of how to value nature. Holists tend to think we either value nature instrumentally, which for them amounts to not valuing nature at all, or intrinsically, where value attaches either to individuals or to collectives. But nature can be valued in a variety of ways; we can value both collectives and individuals; we can value things as means to ends (like money); we can value things as ultimate ends (much as we value our companions, partners, or children); and we can value things as neither ultimate ends nor mere means, but rather as constitutive of other things that we value (perhaps, freedom of choice and privacy are such things.). Some values lie between means values and ends values and, while it makes ethical analysis tricky, that may be the most sensible way to address tricky conflicts.

We could argue that species have value that doesn’t reduce simply to the cumulative well being of each individual member of the species, but that value doesn’t transcend the members either. There is value in the relations that the existence of the collective allows to be realized. For example, the well-being of most animals, particularly social animals, relies centrally on their ability to develop relations with others of their kind, to learn species-typical behaviors, to develop specific cultures, to communicate, to hunt, to play. Individual flourishing, in humans and other animals, crucially depends on a sustaining and sustainable context much larger than the individual, and thus valuing the individual necessitates valuing the whole within which the individual makes her life meaningful. Of course, that meaningful life is of value too.

3:AM: Things are particularly toxic for women across the globe at the moment. What are contemporary feminisms arguing to combat this situation?

LG: I don’t think things are any worse now than they have always been, sadly, I just think with social media and 24/7 news we are hearing more about various manifestations of gender oppression and violence. Women and other marginal groups are being impacted in different ways now — for example, climate change and food scarcity will affect women and children first and harder than it will affect men initially. The arguments that feminists have long been making for equality and respect are rooted in an analysis of the indefensibility of exercises of unearned privilege, e.g. male privilege, white privilege, class privilege. Feminist philosophers and theorists continue to draw attention to the social construction of social categories that have been naturalized. We try to reveal the logic of domination that allows members of one group to create social structures that favor themselves while at the same time creating or perpetuating social structures that disadvantage “others.” One of the strengths of contemporary feminist thinking about privilege and domination comes from increased attention to intersecting oppressions – the complex ways in which gender, gender non-conformity, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, and I would suggest species as well, interact to generate very specific forms of injustice. Attention to intersecting oppressions complicates thinking about how we might achieve more just social arrangements and it has the potential to bring together groups that those with power have worked to keep apart and at odds.

3:AM: And in philosophy departments also there are big issues. There have been a few high profile cases recently. As a philosopher what is like from the inside, what do you think the reason is for academic philosophy being so poor in this respect and are there things that should be done? 

LG: The high profile cases within philosophy departments are focused on sexual harassment and sexual predation. It is so important that women who are being harassed are speaking out. For too long that wasn’t the case and I think part of the reason women are speaking out now is because there are many philosophers of all genders who are working to make changes in the profession so victims of sexual harassment feel they will be supported. I do worry a bit that the focus on sexual harassment in the profession has obscured the more day in and day out sexism that exists in philosophy.

I think the fact that the situation is so bad for women and minorities in the profession is, in some sense, over-determined. Old stereotypical views about women and scholars of color are still prevalent, if not as overt as they once were, and stereotype threat still operates. I have heard from more than a few students and colleagues that they have to spend energy battling the idea that they are “imposters” or “aren’t smart enough.” There is very little philosophical work by women or minority philosophers taught in most philosophy classes so for women students and students of color to pursue philosophy they have to have a deep passion as well as courage, we usually don’t just “fall into” philosophy. One of the things I love about philosophy but I know drives non-philosophers a bit crazy is how we have a habit of trying to understand and explain things in great detail. Given this habit and that the majority of faculty are men in almost all philosophy departments, the phenomena popularly referred to as “mansplaining” is thus rather common and can subtly shape the climate.

There is a lot going on to try to remedy these problems. Changing what is taught in undergraduate courses; working to avoid conferences or edited volumes that only include men (see the gendered conference campaign); and talking more openly about what positive changes can be made to create more inclusive environments in individual departments and philosophy as a whole all are promising developments. But these changes will take time and require vigilance. As a profession, we have a long way to go.

3:AM: In your new book on captivity – which looks at both human and non-human captivity and the issues that arise – there are some examples that might strike some as strange, such as the inclusion of pets. Some might thinks that including pets in discussions about captivity takes us away from crucial examples, such as prisons and zoos? Do pets raise interesting issues at the margins that help bring into sharper focus what the issues are around captivity?

LG: The ethical issues around captivity are remarkably complex and it is surprising how little philosophical attention has been paid to them. You are right to think that prisons and zoos raise the most obvious issues –the individuals that are held captive in these environments are there against their wills, they endure a wide variety of restrictions on their liberty, and they are under the control of their captors. But when we describe captivity as a condition in which a competent adult is confined and controlled and is reliant on those in control to satisfy her basic needs, it becomes clearer that there are many captive environments beyond prisons and zoos, environments that are not ordinarily thought of in those terms.

When we start thinking about pets or “companion animals” as captives then we may start reflecting in new ways on how we treat them. Clare Palmer and Peter Sandoe wrote a provocative chapter in the book that questions the received wisdom that routinely confining cats indoors promotes their well-being. Cats may be happy with our affections and their lives may be longer if we keep them safe indoors, but there is a loss here, to their freedom to go where they want and interact with and shape their larger environment. 

In captive contexts, the trade-offs, between safety and freedom, protection and choice, are often obscured. For example, in the US, over 2 million people are incarcerated and not only are they denied freedom but their families and communities are impoverished in the name of social “safety” which is often illusory. Within prisons too, as two of the chapters in the book vividly illustrate, autonomy and basic respect are sacrificed in the name of safety and security. Comparing various kinds of captive institutions provides an opportunity to analyze the language of “safety” and reveals its strategic use in obscuring the loss of other valuable things. 

Seeing pets as captives, I think, does bring some of the complexities of captivity into sharper focus.

3:AM: At first it seems obvious that conditions of captivity are really important – but then again, even a well looked after slave is still a slave – and no one is going to use the conditions as a justification in that kind of case are they? So where do you stand on this – how far should we be interested in conditions of captivity?

LG: One justification for keeping individuals captive has been that captivity is better for them. In the context of companion animals and zoo animals, for example, one often hears that they will live longer lives and they won’t have to worry about injury or predation or hunger. The sense is that they are better off having lost their freedom. The same sorts of justifications were also heard in the case of slaves. Captors wanted to believe that slaves were better off, became more civilized, more human, because of their captivity. Of course, this is odious in the case of human beings, and there are some who argue that this attitude is equally objectionable in the case of other animals.

Comparing captivity to a type of slavery, some animal advocates are opposed to all forms of captivity, even keeping pets. They take the label “abolitionist” as a way of linking their views to earlier abolitionist struggles to end slavery.

But I think our relationships with other animals (of course humans, but also nonhumans) are a central part of what makes lives meaningful. Rather than thinking we must end all captivity and thus all our relationships with other animals, we’d do better working to improve those relationships by being more perceptive of and more responsive to others’ needs and interests and sensibilities. Since we are already, inevitably, in relationships, rather than ending them we might try to figure out how to make them better, more meaningful, and more mutually satisfying. Importantly, by recognizing that we are inevitably in relationships to other animals, replete with vulnerability, dependency, and even some instrumentalization, and working to understand and improve these relationships, I’m not condoning exploitation. Acknowledging that we are in relationships doesn’t mean that all relationships are equally defensible or should stay as they are. Relationships of exploitation or complete instrumentalization are precisely the sorts of relationships that should change.

And this is where an exploration of conditions of captivity and the complexity of the individual captives’ interests comes in. Some animals, like whales and elephants, cannot thrive in captive conditions. As much as we might want to have closer relationships with them, it isn’t good for them. Others, like dogs and chimpanzees, can live meaningful lives in captivity but only if the conditions they are captive in are conducive to their flourishing and they are respected. Part of the problem with captivity is the relationship of domination that it tends to maintain. By re-evaluating captivity (and for many in our non-ideal situation, there is no real alternative) we can start to ask questions about whether and how captive conditions can, while denying certain freedoms, still promote the dignity of the captives.

3:AM: Putting a wasp in a jar seems less bad than putting a chimp in a cage. Does this intuition track anything ethical?

LG: The loss of freedom has different implications for different individuals within the same species and for members of other species. Usually, denying individuals their liberty negatively impacts the quality of their lives, but this can happen in two ways. Doing what one wants, being free to make choices and to act on them, and not being interfered with in the pursuit of one’s desires are important because they contribute to making an individual’s life go better. Individuals who are confined, restrained, or subordinated can’t follow their desires. Putting the wasp in a jar and putting a chimpanzee in a cage denies them both freedom of movement and the freedom to get what they want.
But perhaps what underlies the intuition that it is worse to make a chimpanzee captive than to confine a wasp is the sophisticated cognitive capacities of the chimpanzee who values her freedom, not just instrumentally because of what it gets her, but because it is constitutive of her well-being. This may sound odd, but I think from what is now known about chimpanzee cognition, the boredom and frustration that accompanies captivity and the documented need for environmental, emotional, social, and intellectual enrichment suggests that chimpanzees do value their freedom. The process of satisfying one’s own interests and correcting one’s self when she changes her mind or makes bad choices are part of what makes a life a good life for beings who have these sorts of cognitive capacities. I believe chimpanzees can do these things, so it makes sense to think that they, like us, value their freedom more than just instrumentally.

And its not just chimpanzees. Many other animals are self-directed, adapt to changing circumstances, make choices and resist changes, and improve their environments, often through collective action. Other animals learn from conspecifics and modify what they learn to suit themselves and their needs. Not all animals in a social group do exactly the same things, eat exactly the same things, or spend time with the same individuals. They are making independent choices. There are species-typical behavioral repertoires that constrain an individual’s absolute expression of this their autonomy, but none of us is ever completely free of constraints. So I think there are a lot of other animals for whom captivity is ethically problematic because it violates their autonomy, but probably not wasps.
But, maybe I just don’t know enough about wasps.

3:AM: Some animals wouldn’t exist if they weren’t in captivity. How do we decide whether species death or life is morally justified?

LG: There is a long-standing debate about the conservationist justification for keeping animals captive rather than let them go extinct. Some have argued that we shouldn’t sacrifice the interests of the one for the good of the many. But I confess, I’m vexed by the hard questions of extinction and also worry about whether “we” can make much useful difference.

In Ethics and Animals I recount the story of the dwindling existence of rhinoceros. I wrote about the death of one of the rarest large mammals on the planet, the Javan rhinoceros who was found shot dead in Vietnam’s Cat Tien National Park. The rhino was shot by poachers so they could to take the horn. At the time, conservation authorities said there are only three to five Javan rhinos left in Vietnam. In 2013, they were declared extinct. Also last year, the Western Black rhino was declared extinct. Elephants, orangutans, tigers, and a host of other less “charismatic” animals will not be around (outside of zoos and preserves) for much longer.

If there were a way to hold some individuals in ideal captive conditions in the hopes of reintroducing them to the wild in order to avoid extinction that might justify captivity. But that is no longer realistic. In fact, the very idea that there is a “wild” free of human management is itself unrealistic. One of the new ways of thinking about what used to be considered a choice between individuals in captivity and wild populations free of human interference, is to recognize that all endangered or threatened animals are in some sense already in captivity – not in zoos, but rather in conditions in which they have their freedom managed and controlled.

3:AM: There are lots of reasons for captivity that aren’t ethical – practical, aesthetic, taste, politics, emotive and so on – so do you think the ethical reason must always override these other possible reasons?

LG: This question bumps up against discussions about the scope and nature of ethical reasoning. I have sympathies with broadly consequentialist answers to this sort of question — the divisions between types of reasons can be helpful for a variety of purposes, but basically whatever divisions one makes, we can evaluate reasons in ethical terms. So if I have a taste for hamburgers, the production of which causes intense suffering, my aesthetic desire for burgers can be evaluated on ethical grounds. It may be politically expedient to disproportionately stop and frisk black youth, but the implications of acting on reasons of expedience can be evaluated ethically. 

Captivity is the same way. In fact, in many instances, the only thing to do is keep some individuals captive. My own interest in the ethics of captivity arose in my working with captive chimpanzees almost a decade ago. I felt truly conflicted about the fact that these incredibly smart, sociable, often charming, always complicated, individuals had to spend their lives (some live to be 50-60) in captivity. Many of the chimpanzees I know are 5th or 6th generation captives. Chimpanzee habitats are being decimated and the fastest growing populations of captive chimpanzees are in Africa, in native range countries for chimpanzees, where they are orphaned due to bush meat hunting and forest destruction. So even if it was possible to teach individuals who have only known captivity to survive outside of captivity, there really isn’t a safe place to release them. This raised a genuine moral dilemma – any thing we do, release them or hold them captive, can be considered wrong. So that lead me to thinking about whether and how we could minimize the ethical costs of captivity. 

3:AM: And for the curious readers here at 3:AM are there five books (other than your own) you could recommend that would take us further into your philosophical world?

LG: I know many of those you interview have a hard time coming up with only five books and I’m having a hard time too. There are so many important books in practical ethics and social and political philosophy, but here are five books that have been important to my current thinking –Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Resisting Reality by Sally Haslanger, Every Twelve Seconds by Timothy Pachirat, edited by Cheshire Calhoun.

Françoise Hardy - Message Personnel 

Link: How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points,”Arthur Martine counseled in his magnificent 1866 guide to the art of conversation“let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.” Of course, this isn’t what happens most of the time when we argue, both online and off, but especially when we deploy the artillery of our righteousness from behind the comfortable shield of the keyboard. That form of “criticism” — which is really a menace of reacting rather than responding — is worthy of Mark Twain’s memorable remark that “the critic’s symbol should be the tumble-bug: he deposits his egg in somebody else’s dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.” But it needn’t be this way — there are ways to be critical while remaining charitable, of aiming not to “conquer” but to “come at truth,” not to be right at all costs but to understand and advance the collective understanding.

Daniel Dennett (b. March 28, 1942), whom artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky has called “our best current philosopher” and “the next Bertrand Russell,” poses an apt question that probes some of the basic tendencies and dynamics of today’s everyone-is-a-critic culture: “Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”

In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (public library) — the same fantastic volume that gave us Dennett on the dignity and art-science of making mistakes — he offers what he calls “the best antidote [for the] tendency to caricature one’s opponent”: a list of rules formulated decades ago by the legendary social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport, best-known for originating the famous tit-of-tat strategy of game theory. Dennett synthesizes the steps:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

If only the same code of conduct could be applied to critical commentary online, particularly to the indelible inferno of comments.

But rather than a naively utopian, Pollyannaish approach to debate, Dennett points out this is actually a sound psychological strategy that accomplishes one key thing: It transforms your opponent into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion.

Compare and contrast with Susan Sontag’s three steps to refuting any argument, and treat yourself to Dennett’s wholly excellent Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.

Each stage of life greatly pleases us, but unfortunately not while we are in it. The young are eager to be adults, adults look forward to being retired, the retired envy youth. Daters crave marital stability, the married miss the thrill of dating. College students and graduates would swap places. We possess the pieces of a happy life, too bad we cherish them out of sequence.
Brian Jay Stanley, We Love Our Life in the Wrong Order (via missfolly)

(Source:, via astranemus)