“What if we understand the death drive not only as manifested within the individual psyche, or in terms of group psychology, but as something that takes hold of institutions and guides their aims, sometimes with furtive tenacity?”–Judith Butler, review of Jacques Derrida’s The Death Penalty: Vol. I in The London Review of Books, 17 July 2014
Yesterday I traveled to the Upper West Side to take part in the People’s Climate March, an extraordinary and mostly festive outpouring of the beautiful sentiment: “We want the world to live!” In the back of my mind the whole time was the crystallization of my reservations about the ads for the event that I expressed in my last post: anybody who thinks you “change the world” after “grabbing brunch” is in for a sad surprise. On the eve of the march, I had read Arun Gupta’s sobering reflections in a Counterpunch article on the corporate-style approach of the march organizers (available here), so I kept checking for evidence for his main charge–that the organizers had made a political decision to keep the event “politics free.” And it was true enough that, as Gupta points out, the march as a whole had no “enemy” and no demands. Instead, participants were free to bring along their own enemies and demands–enemies such as Exxon, BP, and (occasionally) “capitalism” (whereas not one sign or display that I saw targeted Obama, the Obama administration, or New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has stubbornly refused to take a stand against hydraulic fracturing); demands such as Ban Fracking or Use Military $$ to Help the Planet or stop the Liquefied Natural Gas terminal in my community. I was glad to see the large contingent of marchers from the Flood Wall Street group, bearing a very, very long strip of blue fabric apparently meant to represent the dissenting throngs set to inundate the capital of capital during Monday’s scheduled civil disobedience protest.
Here’s Woodstock, I thought. Next stop: Altamont. Or, how do you deal with the enormous disconnect between ordinary people’s sincere, touching, beneficent wishes for the planet and the death-soaked institutions in which their lives are embedded? If only the issue were simply that we are all participants in an unsustainable way of life! That is true enough, and it’s a formidable obstacle to making needed improvements, but the far higher hurdle is the inconvenience, social ostracism, and in many cases physical danger that ordinary people will have to undergo for those wishes to have a chance of making history.
Everybody wanted good things when they marched in the bitter cold in the winter of 2003 to demand that the Bush administration not invade Iraq. Everybody wanted good things when they canvassed for Obama and voted for “change” in 2008. The lead article in this morning’s New York Times is not about the climate march (though that is prominently covered), but rather about the Obama administration’s vigorous pursuit of a “wave of atomic revitalization” that “includes plans for a new generation of weapons carriers” and may cost one trillion dollars over the next three decades. Headlined “U.S. Ramping Up Major Renewal in Nuclear Arms,” the piece (here) is a classic of rhetorical nukespeak: the “renewal” of death-dealing technologies comes because older weapons will “reach the end of their useful lives”; the “president’s avowed policy is to wean the world off nuclear arms”; Los Alamos National Laboratory is the “birthplace of the atomic bomb”; the deputy energy secretary says there is no contradiction between the plans to build new weapons and the Obama administration’s proclaimed desire to reduce the nuclear threat, because “the most important thing is to make sure that [remaining weapons] are safe, secure and reliable.”
I wonder what Judith Butler has in mind when she writes of an institutional death drive. That is to say, I understand very well the phenomenon she is referring to; I believe we can all see its operations quite clearly in the example of the Obama administration’s actions with respect both to nuclear weapons and to energy policy. But I wonder what it means–what it might mean from the point of view of a social scientist, or a thoughtful Marxist–to say that a drive could take hold of an institution, in some way that is not entirely dependent on the individual or group psychology of those who populate that institution.
In a brief paragraph, the Times article about nuclear “renewal” recalls a 2012 security breach at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, TN, where a “$550 million fortress” was supposed to protect stores of highly enriched uranium: “[A]n 82-year-old Roman Catholic nun, Megan Rice, and two accomplices cut through fences, splashed blood on the stronghold and sprayed its walls with peace slogans,” for which crime the sister received a term of 35 months in prison. According to Wikipedia, she said at her sentencing, “I regret I didn’t do this 70 years ago!”
The main institutions of this country–Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, the national security apparatus, the energy industry and the industries dependent on it–are in the grip of the death drive. And the Obamas and Clintons (B. or H.–take your pick), are its functional servants, just as much as the Bushes and Cheneys. The courage of many, many Sister Megan Rices–the amazing fortitude required to interrupt even one moment of the orderly functioning of that necrosis–is the only force with a hope of blocking the seemingly endless potential for renewal–the rebirth— of that which wants to kill us all.