Review | Hope Against Hope: Cyborg thinking in disaster zones

The Out of the Woods Collective’s anthology of essays Hope Against Hope contains some of the finest work of thinkers at the intersection of abolitionism, cyborg natures, and ecological revolutionary socialism, writes Gus Woody.

An image of scrap metal on a wasteland, an ex-industrial area in Sered, Slovakia
Image: Milan Cupka

Out of the Woods, Hope Against Hope: Writings on Ecological Crisis (New York: Common Notions, 2020) 272 pp. £12.99.

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In these darkening days, with escalating climate change, state violence, and pandemics, hope seems a dangerous luxury – a mystifying distraction from the very poor state of the world. Yet Out of the Woods, a transnational political research and theory Collective, choose hope as one of the central themes of their latest book, Hope Against Hope. For them, hope is the ‘grave but positive emotion which collectively emerges within the disastrous present, pushes against it, and expands beyond it.’ Amid worsening crises, such hope is not a bright-eyed expectation of a glossy future, it is a recognition of the possibility of better things to come found in the practices of collective struggle.

I must say, I found myself rather hopeful reading this book, despite all the dark topics contained within it. A collection of some of Out of Woods best essays and interviews since their founding 2014, Hope Against Hope is both an engaging and challenging read, which provides many of the tools needed to explore and develop an abolitionist green revolutionary socialism.

The book itself is split into four sections, borders, natures, futures, and strategies, which link together common themes within the Collective. Borders tackles nationalism and bordering as crucial aspects of ecological breakdown and politics. Subsequently, natures unpacks the Gordian knot of what exactly the ‘nature’ the environmental movement struggles for should be understood as. Futures explores different visions of times to come, and their bearing on our choices today. Finally, strategies brings together the Collective’s writings on how the left currently organises for revolutionary change.

Overall, the book synthesises some of the Collective’s best work under these headings. Not just settling for this, each article is prefaced with a contemporary comment from Out of the Woods, candidly explaining where their thinking fell short, held blind spots, or hit a dead end. Consequently, Hope Against Hope is not only a collection of crucial writings on ecological socialism, it comes to reflect the joy and difficulty of collective writing.

Borders and natures

There are two particularly crucial strands of Out of the Woods’ thought which emerge throughout the early sections of Hope Against Hope which deserve praise, as issues often not sufficiently analysed in most accounts of ecological socialism.

Firstly, within borders, Out of the Woods demonstrate the particular attention they pay towards the role nationalism and the process of creating borders has in ecological crisis. Often works by ecological socialists fall between two poles. On the one hand the absence of borders and the wider system of imperialism as an ecological concern. On the other a presentation of climate change’s effects on migration in an inflammatory and overly simplistic model of escalating numbers of climate refugees. Between these two extremes, the essays in this section point out not just the importance of an abolitionist and internationalist approach to borders and migration, but the importance of taking seriously displacement as a complex phenomenon, embedded within relations of imperialism.

In natures, a further dimension of Out of the Woods’ thinking emerges. There is often an assumption within environmental circles that simply believing in the urgency of climate action is enough, that to care about the planet constitutes a definitively progressive and enclosed politics. By analysing the often-reactionary accounts of nature cloaked in Malthusianism and nationalism, Hope Against Hope demonstrates the urgency of embedding environmentalism within a wider revolutionary politics committed to the establishment of communism. Rather than simply suggesting that nationalist and capitalist thinking is intrinsically excluded from climate politics, as often emerges in simplistic ‘socialism or barbarism’ polemics, Hope Against Hope recognises all ideologies will, to some extent, adapt themselves to a warming world. By critiquing the reactionary thought of American ecologist Garrett Hardin or the coloniser nationalism of writer Paul Kingsnorth, Out of the Woods point out how the incorporation of ecology into reactionary thought is always-already underway and must be fought with an anti-capitalist, anti-racist and internationalist approach to nature.

Cyborg time

The third section, futures, has several excellent pieces. This includes an extended exploration of the politics of reproductive futurism – where activists invoke coming generations and children as a reason to act today – and the particularly exclusionary and queerphobic dimension of this form of politics. However, rather than retreating to an anti-natalism or an opposition to any futurism, Out of the Woods call for a ‘politics of regenerative cyborgs’, shifting the political focus from the act of reproduction to the wider conditions of social reproduction which people are embedded within.

Regenerative cyborgs are not the only cyborgs to appear in Hope Against Hope. There is cyborg ecology, cyborg agroecology, and a cyborg Earth – for Out of the Woods the world is both flesh and wires. The Collective rely heavily on Donna Haraway’s invocation of the cyborg as the binary-disrupting hybrid of machine and organism which provides a socialist-feminist response to the rigid distinctions imposed by modern capitalism. It is no surprise, then, that the standout essay within Hope Against Hope is Sophie Lewis’ interrogation of Haraway’s thought – Cthulhu Plays No Role for Me. Many contemporary socialists are quick to dismiss Haraway, either for the mortal sin of postmodernism or Haraway’s more Malthusian turn in recent years. Instead, Lewis, in a deeply personal essay which has as much to say on the often para-social relationship we can have with our inspirational thinkers as it does on Haraway herself, excavates the young Haraway’s cyborg queer communism, ready for it to be used today.

Ultimately, for the Out of the Woods Collective, the point of cyborg thinking is to buck the distinction between the ‘artificial’ and the ‘natural’ in discussions around ecology. This avoids the mythology of a pristine natural world under attack from an industrial society, pointing instead to the more complex reality where societies are always entangled within the natural. Rather than focusing on symptoms, particular technologies and the loss of particular aspects of the ecosystem, this allows an analysis that focuses on the social relations which are contributing to accelerating planetary emergencies. Once one accepts that there is no clear distinction between the natural and the artificial, it becomes possible to interrogate how the particular capitalist form of society within nature causes collapse.

Disaster communism

Finally, turning to strategies, Out of the Woods make several interventions about how to organise as a climate movement, from interrogations of Naomi Klein’s contradictory politics to an analysis of the limits of climate populism as a strategy. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this section, and one of the guiding ideas of the Collective, is the final essay on disaster communism.

What is disaster communism? Rather than proposing a model of climate apocalypse, of disasters felling the whole of society, Out of the Woods rightly recognise that the coming years will bring a series of ‘extraordinary’ disasters, discrete floods and fires, punctuating the ‘ordinary’ disaster which is everyday life for many under capitalism. Whilst there are differences, disaster communism is reflected in Malm’s war communism and the Salvage Collective’s salvage communism – it is a recognition that the coming years will bring expanding and regular moments of strife under which those committed to communism must attempt to fight back. It is a political orientation towards the practices of mutual aid which emerge during ‘extraordinary’ disasters, focused on their potential to both fight capitalism and move beyond it towards communism.

By looking at disasters as crises in social reproduction, Out of the Woods point out how extraordinary disasters are a crisis not just for the people experiencing them, but also the legitimacy of the state and capital within an area. These are times where everything is horribly possible. Crucially, Out of the Woods look to the practices of mutual aid around social reproduction which emerge in the aftermath of disasters, and argue these practices not only demonstrate collective struggle against existing injustices but hold within them the key to moving beyond the present state of things.

Their example of the Mexico City earthquake of 1985 brings out crucial insights about organising around issues of social reproduction. In the aftermath of the earthquake, which killed over 5,000, capitalist property developers and landlords sought to evict and clear vast swathes of housing. After widespread organising and a march on the presidential palace, the government was forced to seize 7,000 homes from landlords to be repaired and returned to tenants. As Out of the Woods point out, relying on Harry Cleaver’s analysis of the disaster, this organising was only possible due to longstanding collective organising around housing and similar issues which had existed in the region. Therefore, against a misreading of disaster communism as a fetishism of the beleaguered practices of community aid in disaster zones, it is an affirmation of the need to engage in organising around social reproductive issues, like housing and food, in preparation for coming climate disasters. In this way, disaster communism is the collective and liberatory inverse of the perverse rise of ‘preppers’, individuals who engage in extreme disaster preparation for the purpose of emerging as a Last Man on Earth-esque character.

This is not to say the Collective’s disaster communism is fully fleshed out. Instead much is left on the table to be discussed. Within their essay there is little discussion of the ways in which collective organising by virtue of one’s relation to production interacts with organising around relations of social reproduction. Or to put it more simply, how should organising in the workplace and around land work complement organising around housing or food in the run up to and aftermath of an extraordinary disaster? Furthermore, how best can those only suffering under conditions of ordinary disaster organise with those experiencing an extraordinary disaster? And finally, how best can we ensure organising around disasters is not co-opted by or subject to repression from the state or capital?

We can see the importance of these questions here in the UK. When one of our now yearly extreme winter floods hits, it is common to hear stories of the different ways in which communities come together to support each other, from sharing food to rescuing people from the waters. Many from outside the flooded regions flock to give aid but then fail to produce long-term links, and many forms of mutual aid, such as fundraisers and other initiatives, are often quickly ossified into Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) with massively limited political horizons. If militant organising around these issues was to arise, there is the further problem of the extensive police and military presence in flooded areas, opening the potential for state repression. If we are to take seriously disaster communism, the above questions need urgent answers which Hope Against Hope does not provide. It all relates to the fundamental problem of mutual aid politics, of converting the particular practices of mutual aid into durable and expanding struggles. In a world of coming regular disasters, we need to be able to link struggles together and build towards a revolutionary situation, not just have durable forms of mutual aid during extraordinary disasters. Those inspired by Out of the Wood’s writings still need to explore how to turn the exception of mutual aid in disasters, to the rule of an abolitionist green communism.

Herein, there is perhaps more to the Leninist tradition than Out of the Woods may give it, not least of all in linking together discrete struggles under the banner of communist revolution. But I must admit I have skin in that game. To close, Hope Against Hope contains some of the finest work of thinkers at the intersection of abolitionism, cyborg natures, and ecological revolutionary socialism. Irrespective of the wider positions comrades across the left may have on the politics of mutual aid, there is much to learn from Out of the Woods. Hope Against Hope is engaging, comradely and thoughtful – I hope we shall continue to see more such interventions in a world of disasters, borders, and cyborgs.

 

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