Take That Cheesecake! Ride That Horse! A Conversation with SL Lim

Circuit on fire!

We’re really excited to say that the novelist and climate writer SL Lim is joining Out of the Woods. By way of getting to know their work a little better, and to begin the process of working collectively, we sent them a few questions drawn from our reading of their excellent Circuit Breakers blog. Their answers are generous, generative and show why we’re phenomenally excited at their joining us.

We’re really excited to say that SL Lim is joining Out of the Woods. In their own words, they are a ‘novelist based in so-called Australia. They are anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, anti-border, pro-degrowth and pro-looting.’ They’re behind the incisive, urgent Circuit Breakers, ‘a (sometimes collaborative) project to collate information about the supply chains producing climate change, including participation by the state and its institutions, corporate entities and the non-profit sector.’ It’s precisely the kind of sober-but-radical analysis that we think is required right now: grounded in an understanding of racialised colonial capital, aware of the dim possibilities, the cracks of the system, but ultimately committed to its abolition.

By way of getting to know their work a little better, and to begin the process of working collectively, we sent them a few questions drawn from our reading of Circuit Breakers. Their answers are generous, generative and show why we’re phenomenally excited at their joining us.

Content note: the first answer contains an extract from a deeply white supremacist poem, which contains anti-Black and anti-Asian slurs. A note is inserted before the poem. Some links also have content notes.

OotW: In ‘First Post; or, On chocolate squares for ExxonMobil lobbyists’, you write powerfully of attending ‘a forum for young professionals in energy and climate’ as the bush fires of the 2019 ‘Australian’ summer raged around you. Six months on, could you say a little about what you think the legacies of those fires has been? How is the ‘natural environment’ responding (insofar as such a concept is tenable), and what social consequences have there been? We might expect to see an intensification of existing inequalities; but also new solidarities and, potentially, fronts of struggle. In ‘After the Fires’, you point to the dangers of calls to declare a “climate emergency”, and discuss how that framing can provide cover for coercive, reactionary and militarised responses; but you also highlight the possibility of mutual aid in face of disaster, something we’ve written about in our work on disaster communism. Have the mutual aid projects been able to persist and develop? Has there been any pushback from the left on the state response? How is this complicated by Australia’s status as a settler colony?

SL Lim: It's surreal just how little has changed post-fires. Electorally, both major parties remain united in their commitment to the burning and export of fossil fuels. While there is interest from one minor party and some non-profits in some Green New Deal-type policies, these take the form of (some) investment in renewables in conjunction with the expansion of fossil fuels and high-emissions industrial processes, as in NSW Minister Matt Kean’s recent climate program. Communities directly affected by the fires are still struggling, but in the city it feels like nothing ever happened. It’s quite weird.

Australia’s status as settler colony is very relevant. Almost invariably the persons and institutions current wrecking the planet are also guilty of the theft of Indigenous resources and the destruction of Indigenous lives. Rio Tinto and BHP, two high polluting mega-miners, were recently in the news for literally blowing up Indigenous heritage sites. The canegrowers and irrigators wreaking devastation on the Murray-Darling river system are the inheritors of wealth largely amassed through slavery [cn: image of enslaved South Sea Islanders on link]. There is a history here. I’ve recently had the displeasure of reading Henry Lawson, a wifebeater and drunk who has somehow obtained a reputation as the national poet. Several of his poems, such as they are, set out the symbolic and practical connections between white supremacy and irrigation, economic nationalism, and some farming and manufacturing industries – which are identified as the spiritual heart of ‘the nation’, rather than specific capitalist interests:

[cn: anti-black and anti-East Asian slurs in quote]

Make farms fit to live on, build workshops and technical schools for your sons;
Keep the wealth of the land in Australia — make your own cloth, machines, and guns!
Clear out the Calico Jimmy1, the n*****, the Chow, and his pals;
Be your foreword for years: Irrigation. Make a network of lakes and canals!

Unfortunately, the enviro movement and most of the ‘left’ seem to embrace rather than push back on this reflexive nationalism. Australia’s climate action, or lack thereof, is conceived as a narrative of national shame and (future) restoration: it’s ‘Make Australia Great Again’, with the source of redemption being solar-manufactured steel. Hence all these calls for Australia to become a ‘renewable energy superpower’ – boosting regional influence via the mass export of solar energy and ‘green’ manufactured goods. Apart from the incompatibility of capitalist growth and slowing climate change, Australia’s present and historical role has been characterised by financial and environmental pillage and the export of vicious border control techniques. There is no reason why this would change with green energy as the new vector of influence.

In fact, the same individuals and institutions pushing the ‘superpower’ line are directly implicated in ecocidal projects, as well as shocking violence against Indigenous communities. The man who coined the ‘superpower’ concept, Ross Garnaut, is a former Exxon adviser and Chairman of the vastly destructive Ok Tedi mine, also owned by BHP. The massive Tennant Creek solar export project is backed by the criminal WWF and by Fortescue Metals’ Andrew Forrest, who has a very poor record with respect to Indigenous land rights and self-determination. Yet this has been embraced by GND proponents, albeit with some [pdf] pushback.

There are some inspiring direct action and mutual aid projects, including water runs for drought-affected communities supported by groups such as Anticolonial Asian Alliance, blockades and divestment campaigns. The brave blockade of the IMARC mining conference was effective; a similar planned blockade achieved cancellation of another major coal-marketing event. However it was met with violent state repression and increased militarisation of police. This from a state government sometimes described as the most left wing in Australia.

Honestly, I don’t perceive much evidence of transformation. It feels pretty bleak.

OotW: An important thread in your writing is that so much contemporary activity is superfluous to a functioning society (even without radical change). In ‘What if We Just Didn’t’ you note that, as a result of COVID-19, ‘across workplaces, industries, supply chains and borders, we are sharing an experience of not doing. One fifth of the world’s population is now under some kind of lockdown, undergoing what is not an identical experience, but one with common characteristics. We are learning the difference between work that is “essential” and that which is useless and gratuitous, work which enhances our collective wellbeing and work which does not.’

Understanding ‘collective wellbeing’ ecologically by accounting for the imbrication of ‘environmental’ and ‘human’ flourishing, here we would point to a clear link between communist class struggle (which is to say: the struggle of workers to abolish themselves as workers) and environmental necessity (the need for reduced production and consumption). This is not the class struggle that mainstream trade unions have come to engage in: they tend to struggle for the dignity of work rather than its abolition, and too often pit the interests of workers against environmentalism - as in all-too-frequent union support for fossil fuel infrastructure. Is there the potential for some recomposition of trade unionism here? In the UK, for example, the National Education Union made an effort to organise against the government’s insistence on reopening schools on the 1st June. It hosted an online meeting with nearly 20,000 members, and even though the government pushed ahead with the partial reopening of schools the union played a key role in preventing many from doing so. This isn’t, yet, a struggle against work per se, and teachers’ fears may be more self-interested than they would need to be around climate change (individual teachers, quite reasonably, might assume that they could get ill and die if they return to work: most workers do not trace such an immediate connection between the fact of their working and their potential suffering from other aspects of ecological crisis). But they aren’t motivated just by self-interest of course, and here we might trace a connection to the Green Bans introduced by the New South Wales Builders Labourers' Federation in the 1970s, which prevented much environmentally devastating building work. In both cases workers refused work out of a broader concern for planetary wellbeing. Do you see potential in this? How do we build from this to get to the point where trade unions routinely make such arguments, even where the direct self-interest of workers is low (e.g. where their work poses an environmental threat, but not one that they perceive to be a directly threat to them)? How do we push the analysis so that it’s not ‘this work is ecologically destructive,’ but ‘the capitalist organisation of (life around) work is ecologically destructive’?

SL Lim: My thoughts are still forming but I’ll try and coalesce. I think unions are formed around the material interests of their members. Therefore, if we want to push back against the ‘capitalist organisation of life around work’, we should show solidarity with those who have a material stake in opposing ‘workerism’. These include the unemployed, migrant and undocumented workers who seek rights independent of their immediate productive output, and precarious and temporary workers who are less likely to be invested in a particular job or institution.

The response to the economic shock of Covid-19 has been illustrative. Corporatised unions have largely abandoned these groups, with the Australian Council of Trade Unions president, Sally McManus, going so far as to say the Unemployed Workers’ Union is ‘not a union’. Yet there has been some inspiring organising, including the aforementioned AUWU and the Undocumented Migrants Solidarity coalition. In the tertiary sector, the National Tertiary Educators Union (NTEU) initially put forward a deal to abandon thousands of precariously employed casual workers but was forced to rescind this via some powerful grassroots organising, including through the National Higher Education Casuals Network.

A comrade said something which I found illuminating. COVID-19 is not ‘degrowth’, which is the intentional scaling down of output to preserve the environment and our lives, which of course are intertwined. But it can be seen as a rehearsal for degrowth, insofar as it involves major cuts to aggregate production. So it’s important that the ‘pain’ of these cuts be shifted as much as possible to the rich and to capital not workers.

I put a lot of emphasis here on material interest, but the example of green bans and workers acting out of ‘broader concern for planetary wellbeing’ rather than their own immediate enrichment is wonderful. Recently the Maritime Union of Australia came out in support of Black Lives Matter - perhaps their position as ‘transport workers keeping global supply chains moving’ supports an understanding that resilience to catastrophe comes from mutuality in struggle, not a refusal of interconnectedness. The kinds of solidarity emerging between the Black Lives Matter movement and certain Asian communities [1, 2], many of whom have previously embraced ‘model minority’ status at the expense of Black and Indigenous liberation, are personally inspiring. I believe solidarity across difference is possible.

OotW: A reduction in work would mean a reduction in production and a reduction in consumption, something you consistently and clearly advocate for. ‘To cut emissions in a way that will meaningfully address climate change,’ you write, ‘we need to use less energy. This will take some combination of greater efficiency and just producing/consuming less stuff – which, in terms of both technology and justice, is totally feasible.’ Elsewhere you make the argument for ‘less growth, less expansion, less production and consumption, not more’; and at its most succinct you argue that ‘less rather than more is what we need to preserve our lives.’

One of our animating concerns is the way that in so much purportedly environmental thought and action, binary divisions which have some explanatory power outgrow their utility and end up framing that thought and action in unhelpful ways. Here we might think of global vs. local, fast vs. slow, automation vs. labour, luxury vs. asceticism, acceleration vs. braking, degrowth vs. abundance and so on. What we putatively call ‘cyborg ecology’ is a way to think outside the structuring power of these binaries without disavowing: 1) their limited utility; 2) other binaries which have greater relevance (settler vs. Indigenous, for example); and 3) the possibility of asking ‘which side are you on?’. So whilst we are in total agreement with you about the need to lower production and consumption, we wonder how to balance this against the possibility of ‘less vs. more’ being given too much structuring power (which, to be clear, we are not accusing you of doing!). In some other important senses, for example, it might be a case of ‘more rather than less’. The production of less stuff can go hand-in-hand with redistribution, housing justice, tool libraries, the production of food for the sake of eating and not for profit, and so on. Fewer commodities (pending the destruction of the commodity form!) might mean greater access to goods and infrastructures which provide a direct use value. Do you think there’s value in trying to rethink this relationship between ‘less’ and ‘more’; or, at the moment, do we need the simplicity of ‘less, not more’?

We might also foreground the role of circulation in facilitating inequalities of consumption and production alike, which you highlight by way supply chains analysis. How do you see the role of infrastructure, logistics, distribution and/or circulation as a field of ecological struggle right now? Are these salient sites of not only negation (against pipelines, coal terminals, etc.), but also politically productive (for a world without capitalist maldistribution of food, say)?

SL Lim: This is an excellent question. How can we live in a way that respects planetary boundaries, whilst celebrating abundance in the things that matter? And how do we communicate this? There’s definitely value in clarifying that while we need major reductions in the aggregate extraction of physical resources, this can co-exist with greater access to the things we really need. Less water for cotton capitalists, more for drinking! Less pointless work, more hanging out with our friends!

That said, and whilst wholeheartedly agreeing with your qualifications about the kinds of plenty and ‘radical abundance’ [pdf] we can enjoy outside of capitalist maldistribution, there will be times when using energy and material throughput will feel like less. Everyone can’t have a car. Everyone can’t eat Western quantities of meat. For many, our daily lives need to change in some quite intimate ways. While I welcome the kinds of mass infrastructural transformation which would make these changes less onerous – ‘walkable cities’, for example – this has to take place within the planetary ‘carbon budget’. Construction is a high emissions industry, the capacity of the biosphere to absorb those emissions is limited, and societies of the Global North have already used most of it. People of the Global South should get first priority.

Fundamentally if you live in the rich world, as I do, you occupy the structural position of the oppressor. The wealth of our societies, including public infrastructure, is built off the enclosure and over-extraction of common resources, a literal occupation of atmospheric ‘space’ denying others the ability to live freely and safely or just live. Oppression demands redistribution, it demands reparation, and some parts of that process will inevitably be confronting.

I don’t know if or to what extent this will actually happen. But I think it cannot unless we tell the truth, then work our way towards reckoning with that truth.

(I’m conscious that this division into ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ is somewhat crude. There are, for instance, poor and Indigenous persons in the North who have derived few or no benefits from these extractive processes, and wealthy persons in the South who occupy the opposite position. The Indigenous novelist Alexis Wright writes brilliantly on this topic. As an anarchist, I seek to reject a framework which centres states rather than people as the unit of analysis. Yet state borders remain vastly consequential. There’s a line to tread between eliding intra-community difference, and ‘not all-ing’ a key form of structural oppression. Whether within states or between them, the reparations approach still applies: those who caused and who benefit from a problem, should pay to fix it.)

The directness of the ‘less, not more’ message I’ve been seeking to convey is also influenced by my experience in an Australian context. The concept of degrowth seems utterly absent, displaced by a kind of magical thinking which imagines we can simply swap out coal for wind, or ‘normal’ cars for electric ones – which is both unfeasible in terms of the depths of emissions cuts we need to achieve, and at best simply shifts from fossil fuels to new frontiers of unsustainable extraction (rare metals, for example). Of course most people don’t believe in magic, so the knowledge this is untenable sneaks out in other ways such as the racist overpopulation trope. It is more ‘thinkable’ to imagine millions of racialised persons removed from existence than major change to First World lifestyles.

An anti-border and anti-colonial approach to degrowth is really important in this context. Clive Hamilton, founder of the left-nationalist Australia Institute, is one prominent local voice spruiking a moralistic and individualised ‘anti-consumerist’ approach, in conjunction with white ethno-nationalism and Sinophobia. His successor, Richard Denniss, has been getting into population control and anti-immigration messaging lately. It’s super gross.

On logistics and circulation – three loosely connected thoughts. One, the vulnerability of capitalist institutions as revealed by COVID-19. Two, the success of anti-fascists in mobilising a small number of people to achieve results via targeted action. And three, the amazing uprisings in the US, the moments of joy and abundance protestors have snatched amidst rage and grief. Take that cheesecake! Ride that horse! I am pro-degrowth and pro-looting.

OotW: In ‘Seize the Bureaucracy’, you propose that those involved in ecological struggle seek to gain leverage over state bureaucracies. You argue that because bureaucracies are not accountable to an electorate, which is ill-inclined to vote ecologically, they are better able to pursue the kinds of long-term and potentially unpopular change required to halt or reverse ecological crisis. This is an intriguing claim, not least because almost everyone, regardless of their politics, holds bureaucracy to be self-evidently bad: a way of stifling necessary action. It might also seem counter-intuitive to those who see the struggle for ecological flourishing as necessarily encompassing, or at least operating alongside, a struggle for increased democratic participation. Indeed, it might be taken as evidence that environmental justice and democracy are necessarily opposed.

Yet your analysis makes it clear that liberal democracy is already undemocratic: what does ‘democracy’ mean, you ask, ‘when Chennai, a city of ten million, risks running out of water because of drought fuelled by Australian coal?’

Can your call for ‘seizing the bureaucracy’ be democratic? Should it try to be? Can we conceive of a bureaucracy that is answerable to, or even controlled by, the people? What of the risk that rather than seize the bureaucracy we get seized by it? Institutions tend to reproduce themselves through their own logic to the point of ossification, and the ‘long march’ through them can be bogged down as people become too comfortable in or resigned to their positions. So, operating in a more radical realm, which we might describe as utopian, communist, abolitionist or anarchist (rather than pragmatic, socialist, policy-oriented or statist), what might bureaucracy be beyond, as you nicely put it, ‘the praxis of government’?

SL Lim: Thanks for these clarifying questions!

To clarify – the call to ‘seize’ the bureaucracy is not intended to recommend joining the bureaucracy. (Please don’t, unless it’s for the cash!) Rather it’s to leverage bureaucratic and regulatory processes towards environmental goals, through direct action or otherwise, via movements which are formed independently of those processes. In ‘After the Fires’, Abbie Lam and I draw a distinction between supporting institutions and building power behind demands, an approach we propose as a means of avoiding the ossification you describe. The incentive for established actors to defend positions of consolidated power and ‘leadership’ – whether in government, the non-profit industry or elsewhere – is undermined when people mobilise around a goal and not an institution. When the goal is accomplished they disperse, with the potential to later remobilise around different goals.

I don’t think there is an opposition between democracy and environmental goals – if democracy is understood as a system of governance where all people have a say in decisions that materially affect them. As we’ve discussed a bordered, citizen-based electoral system is inherently undemocratic, since ecological catastrophe does not respect borders. Voters in a high emitting, fossil fuel-exporting state like Australia are not going support climate action while there is the option of getting rich through emissions, then spending some of that money on razor wire and detention camps which are used to brutalise migrants out of seeking recompense for the attendant ecological disaster. (To be clear, that recompense would take the form of residency, work opportunities, and other rights of access to the wealth generated via those emissions). It is like asking the Godfather to vote away the Godfather.

Nothing is impossible, but I think it’s foolish to keep hoping for electoral change without structural change in the composition of the electorate. Freedom of movement, with voting rights for non-citizens, would go some way towards dissolving the false opposition between environmental justice and ‘democracy’.

In a better world and outside of electoralism, what form would bureaucracy take? How do we manage infrastructure at scale, how can we collectively make decisions? These are important questions, which I think should be guided by the following principle: anyone with a stake in the outcome of a process should have the opportunity to shape that process before the fact, and some avenue of accountability after. But for me, the question of ‘what would a utopian bureaucracy look like?’ isn’t super helpful. Our imagining of the future is constrained by the possibilities of any given moment, yet each step opens up new and different possibilities – one reason why anarchists like myself reject a separation of ends and means.

The form an ‘ideal’ society takes also depends on context, which is why I put a lot of focus on ‘Australia’ – not because I have any investment in Australian nationalism other than its abolition, but because I think the answer to these and other questions evolves in locally specific ways.

That said, in my other life I’m a novelist so maybe I’ll tackle this question of what a radically different bureaucracy might look like through that medium at some point.

Now I think about it, I see how ‘seize the bureaucracy’ might sound like a call to obtain state power, rather than subverting it. This is pretty much the opposite of my intent. I’ll try and think of a different title.

OotW: We haven’t written much on calls for and attempts to instigate a ‘Green New Deal’ yet, but we’ve been giving considerable thought to how a disaster communism might differ from, work with, antagonise, parasite off, be parasited by, criticise and/or support such an approach. As individual members we aren’t sure if we agree with each other, and some of us aren’t even sure if we agree with ourselves. But broadly speaking our position on the Green New Deal is similar to the one you’ve outlined in ‘A Few Thoughts on the Green(s’) New Deal’, and engaging with this piece perhaps gives us the opportunity to outline the beginnings of that position a little.

Like you, we think the name is unfortunate. We’re wary of the reduction of ecological politics to the ‘Green’, and of its origins in the ‘New Deal’ - a deeply colonial, anti-worker, nationalist and productivist programme. We’re also wary of the way these origins are replicated in the proposed and existing policies some people are branding as part of a ‘Green New Deal’. And of course as anti-state communists we ultimately reject the social contract between state and citizen implied in the very concept of a ‘deal’. But we also recognise that the urgent timeframe requires actions from actors we believe should be abolished. We understand the desire to work with what we’ve got, and accept that, to a degree at least, the meaning of the term is still open to struggle. Thus, we’re heartened by the calls for an internationalist and decolonizing Green New Deal (outlined, for example, in A Planet to Win), and stand in solidarity with those calling for a ‘Red Deal’ and a ‘Black New Deal’. Yet there’s perhaps a more fundamental problem too, which is that even a putatively anti-racist Green New Deal may be counter-revolutionary: a capture and deadening of militant struggle (likely led by racialized and colonized people), which reinforces state power and with it white supremacy.

So as a final question, we’d like to invite you to think with us on this. How much should (disaster) communists compromise to push for and beyond a Green New Deal? Might the Green New Deal actually be helped by having a more radical outrider which worries governments (cf. the Soviet Union and the welfare state), and is the most we can hope for to be doomed to play this role? Which GND reforms might provide (disaster) communists with a base from where they can further their struggle, and which might prove fatal to that struggle? Can these questions be answered in advance of struggle, and are they even useful questions?

SL Lim: Like you, I have reached no clear resolution and frequently disagree with myself on these questions! However, I’ve found Principle #1 from the ‘Red Deal’ very resonant: ‘What creates crisis cannot solve it’.

The work of prison abolitionists has also been very helpful in thinking through the distinction between ‘reformist reforms’ which ‘continue or expand the reach of policing’, and ‘abolitionist steps that work to chip away and reduce its overall impact’. This four-part test from Critical Resistance is illuminating [pdf]. Does the reform:

· reduce funding to police?
· challenge the notion that police increase safety?
· reduce tools / tactics / technology police have at their disposal?
· reduce the scale of policing?

Substituting ‘capitalism, the bordered state, and white supremacy’ for ‘policing’ in the above creates a powerful analytic framework. In an Australian context, providing subsidies to capitalists for ‘green’ steel manufacturing and supposedly ‘cleaner’ coal mining (!) –unaccompanied by legal, financial or other obligations to directly cut emissions – clearly does not reduce funding to high-emitting industries or to capital in general. Rather it increases the tools and technology such industries have at their disposal, increases the scale of these industries as well as their tools for risk and reputation management, reifies the notion that capital is our ‘saviour’, and reinforces state power.

That’s an obvious dunk. Less obvious might be a ‘reformist’ proposal like a carbon tax – which broadly speaking, reduces the funding and scope of fossil capital, but also gives the state a financial stake in continuation rather than eradication of these industries. Yet empirically, it does seem like carbon taxes cause some, if nowhere near adequate, reduction in emissions. On balance I am in favour of this mechanism as a ‘base for further struggle’. I bring this up not because this is likely in my own national context – while conceptually elegant, carbon taxes are a political economy non-starter – but as an example of working through these trade-offs.

Another question is who a deal is being made with. The ‘counterparty’ - those who we seek to be in solidarity with, and accountable to - should be those who have the greatest material stake in resisting climate crisis and its causes. This means persons in the Global South, and Indigenous communities - who also have the greatest track record of sustainable living and of struggle against the forces which would undermine that. There’s been some very powerful work on a Blak New Deal by Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance and others. As Philip Winzer writes: ‘What gives colonisers the moral authority to mandate the solutions, when the colonisation they benefit from is a root cause of the issue?’

I would like ‘us’ to be more than an outrider, valuable as that role is. I don’t exactly know how. As previously alluded, just as climate is a global issue, so too are logistical systems and supply chains – and surprisingly vulnerable, as revealed by Covid-19.

Perhaps these are pipedreams, but an actual global Climate Strike would be a beautiful thing. On a more local level, wouldn’t it wonderful to see new connections between Australia’s precarious migrant and agricultural workforce - who play a critical role in food production, yet have been largely excluded from Covid-19 relief - and Indigenous and/or Indigenous solidarity groups. Demands might include land and water rights, reparations, visa amnesties and basic income unconditioned on citizenship or visa status.

Again, maybe these are pipedreams, but maybe part of the role of disaster communists is seeding dreams.

I think all political work represents a constant communication between what is possible and what is desirable, and what is possible is changing by the day – so I’m very excited to be in communication with you and others.

  • 1. ‘Calico Jimmy’ was derogatory slang for a capitalist.

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Out of the Woods
Jul 10 2020 16:22


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