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The “ecological transformation” between the command of capital, the erosion of the subject and new antagonisms

The “ecological transition” has suddenly acquired an unprecedented degree of centrality within Italian institutional politics. It is configured first and foremost as a new field of economic recovery, characterized by the rhetoric of growth and development, on its way representation of simultaneous rupture and continuity with the environmental policies of previous decades. On the one hand, in fact, it confirms the already widely discussed model according to which the ecological crisis and environmental damage have stopped being limits to the accumulation of capital and instead become new opportunities for profit and investment, in short, new space and engine of accumulation. On the other hand, this field of ecological exploitability occupies a particularly central role in the, I dare to say, desperate response to an unprecedented systemic crisis, exacerbated by the Covid 19 pandemic.

Originally published by Effimera. Written by Alice Dal Gobbo. Translated by Riot Turtle.

In the face of the generalized collapse of the late capitalist system- and the ecology-world, the “green transformation” is not only the space for the search for new “opportunities” for a now wasting away economy: it is the place and the moment of the ultimate attack on the living that is not yet reducible to the logic of value, of the profound attempt to transform the whole world-organic and non-organic-into the strange logic of production and disposability, of the final fading out of the limits and the recalcitrant power of nature to detract the plans of capital.

It is also an instrument of political legitimation for a system that is less and less able to respond to the specific needs of a large part of the population and that, on the contrary, makes exclusion to its “trademark”. A final socio-cultural attempt to support the modern-capitalist, Western-centered rhetoric of “development” – which promises technical solutions to the damage it causes.

This is a terrain to be explored, still locally volatile, where different interests clash and collide in setting the coming agenda. In this context, there is now a socio-ecological antagonism equipped with narratives, discourses and practices radically incompatible with any capitalist effort to adapt to the reality of the crisis, and capable of exposing the tricks of fake-ecological rhetoric that conceal the ecological, social, cultural and psychological devastation and damage. The ecological transition will then be the real “battlefield” to occupy in the coming era. Against the radical, desperate and violent attempt of a system in ruins, seizing the opportunity of ecological reconstruction in order to survive, stands the struggle for the affirmation of life: the “good life,” understood in its profoundly political sense, also conflictual, in any case not pacified, always oriented toward the realization of fair relations, joyful existences, experiences of real togetherness. So that ecology can be translated into practices and policies of ecological coexistence that are no longer controlled by necrophilic and necro-political logics.

Every field of action is inhabited by subjects – individually, collectively, supra-individually, in constant (re)definition. What I would like to reflect on in the following is precisely this issue: what has happened to the subject in the “ecological turn”? Perhaps this will seem a more limited concern, too insignificant to address the big questions raised by this period of turbulent transformation. But by defining and delineating ourselves as subjects, we position ourselves and are positioned, we act and are acted upon. The space of subjectification is both a site of subordination and definition within given forms of (re)production and a space of radical event, of affirmation of potentially revolutionary singularities. In this sense, it is important to ask who are the subjects that inhabit the complex discursive and material space of the present and its responses to the ecological crisis.

Neoliberal environmental politics had a particular subject at its center, which both the more “philosophical” critics and the social movements were used to recognizing, deconstructing, and questioning by practicing and thinking about alternative forms of subjectivation. For decades, environmental politics and “transitions” to sustainability were presented as a process in which all people, understood as individuals, were to have a stake. Each individual was responsible for their own well-being and that of ecosystems: they could choose the green option at the supermarket, define themselves as a “good citizen” when it came to sorting waste, reduce the use of their car, or buy an electric car to reduce the impact of their mobility. In the big illusion that “society does not exist”, instead there is only an aggregated mass of individuals, it is logical that it is possible to generate radical changes thanks to the behavior and virtuous choices that each person can make in daily life. On the other hand, behavior was presented as a linear result of ethical-moral values and abstract attitudes, which then took shape in autonomous and sovereign decisions. Thus, much emphasis was placed on campaigns to sensitize, inform, and hold individuals responsible for their actions, with the idea that a proper awareness of the consequences of one’s actions would be enough to change individual behavior and, by extension, society as a whole.

A similar depoliticization (or better this fake-politicization: a-partisan, non-partisan, a-conflictual) has allowed even very different subjectivities to temporarily converge with the dominant eco-governmentality. It has, for example, pacified some moderate environmentalism with the agenda of neoliberal elites. The neoliberal subject, the individualized “citizen-consumer,” has been constructed as apolitical, neutral, and universal. This construction, however, turns out to be ideological, practically false, and colonial, as it erases embodied and historically given partisanship: the model it refers to is in fact the rational, delimited, possessive, sovereign, and autonomous white man.

The Cartesian credo that characterizes this model has been widely criticized. No action can be considered a single, dematerialized act, independent of social relations, of the construction of desire, and of the material possibilities within which people grow, live, and reproduce their existence. Choice is never free or sovereign and unequally distributed in a world where access to resources, services, and knowledge is increasingly polarized. Constructing responsibility as something individual rather than collective only supports and justifies the perpetuation of the given reality, reduces the possibilities for politicization, deprives forms of action, claims, struggles, and collective constructions, and obscures structural inequalities. The actions of those least responsible for environmental destruction are blamed and moralized, while attention is diverted from the real political questions and responses around the ecological crisis.

The central, mythical and mythological figure of the “subject” in its neoliberal version has thus functioned as a practical illusion, an ideological screen, a depoliticizing apparatus. But it has also become clear in its resounding practical and political failure that no transition that is truly up to the challenges of the present can take place without thinking and acting at the collective level. In the process, this toxic narrative has been reconfigured as a space of contestation, a narrative that must be inhabited in order to articulate new, revolutionary processes. For those who resisted the system, it allowed them to “create” themselves as other subjects, collective, driven by desire, inclusive, and open to a more-than-human dimension of coexistence and cooperation. It was possible to create counter-narratives to the idea of ecological transition as a collaboration of individual choices and behaviors, and to practice forms of resistance, struggle, and ecological (re)construction based on mutual care, on the invention of new socio-ecological relationships, and different forms of appreciation. The neutral and depoliticized rational individual was countered by a politics of desiring bodies that transcended identity barriers while constituting overtly situational, diverse, non-universal positionalities that traced a field of forces and struggles.

In connection with the transformations of the concept and practices of governance of today’s “ecological transformation”, the means of subjectivation in the field are also changing. Having established the fundamental impossibility of bringing about substantial change through appeals to the morality of @ citizens and the good will of individuals, the sovereign, acting subject who takes its decisions into its own hands leaves the stage of mainstream rhetoric. In its place, a highly technocratic idea of “ecological transition” prevails, in which subjects of flesh, bones, or thoughts are increasingly relegated to the shadows of invisibility. It is the transition of capital investment, of the creeping computerization of all everyday life, of software and algorithm, of the “imposition” of unnecessary large-scale projects, of exclusionary infrastructures, of finance, of the “elimination” of available territories in the name of “conservation” or “compensation.” Although, and we should never stop saying this, there are very specific issues behind this transition, they are not named. The acting engine seems to be rather an automatism in the discourse: Economy, development, technology…

Not that this has not happened before, but now that the “ecological transformation” is becoming a key instrument of “recovery”, of the revival of the collapsing social (re)production relations, these elements are taking over. In any case, to bring up the subject means to introduce an elusive element that escapes control: the discarding, the contesting, the resisting, the simple fact of not behaving correctly. By completely evading it, this transition seems to favor a direct, violent and unmediated command over the territories and the subjects that inhabit them, on the part of capital and the institutions (the state in the main) that implement its actions.

One can bury without regret the abstract and ideal neoliberal subject that served as an ideological mask for large-scale ecological devastation, but the actual suspension of subjectivity in contemporary environmental governance must be questioned and, above all, conflictually inhabited. The end of the narrative about the good deeds of the individual does not mean for the dominant institutions a public policy based on the construction of common, collective, just and participatory pathways inhabited by multiple and concretely living subjectivities. On the contrary, today’s capitalist-driven “ecological transition” tends to objectify everything: Humans, non-human nature, territories. Life as a whole becomes a substrate of accumulation processes, an extractive space, a disposable object, at best an active engine in the production of value. As the recent results of the mobilizations in Val Susa against the TAV project have shown, coloniality is indisputably affirmed as the very logic of ecological politics: The dominant subject reduces everything that is different to an object, depriving it of voice, agency, freedom, self-determination…

Against this deployment of subjectivization, however, it will be possible and necessary to continue to build antagonistic subjectivities capable of inhabiting and managing the huge planetary crisis that is emerging. In recent decades, radical ecological movements have decried the incoherence of the politics of good, everyday action and called for large-scale action through which capital appropriates life and extracts value from living matter. Today, as the continuous and inevitable violence of green transitional phases to capitalist logic becomes evident, the post-political ideal of environmental politics as a field potentially beyond conflict, pacifying, neutral, has finally fallen. Ways of acting are being articulated that will affect whole communities and territories even more profoundly and unequally.

The spaces of mediation are becoming more and more narrow, claustrophobic, uninhabitable. The new terms of conflict are being defined. In the face of an increasingly inflexible command and the erosion of the subject (as singularity) that it tries to bring into play, perhaps – paradoxically – the space for all the living irreducibility of an antagonistic politics emerges. As the most diverse experiences show – from the Kurdish, to the indigenous resistance movements against extractive projects, to the current mobilizations in Latin America – the struggle for a real and fair ecological transition against the apparatuses of state and capital is self-determined in and with the territories, in the rebellious invention of radically liberated socio-ecological relations. The more the “ecological transition” seems to be guided by an automatic subject that responds to necessary and neutral universal rules, the more this non-subject crushes the other out of itself in the radical absence of recognition, the more space can be found for the vital, contradictory, concrete and becoming politics of expanded collectivities. In contrast to a majorizing and possessing subject that grows increasingly ghostly, obtuse from itself, enclosed within the deadly boundaries of existing relations of class, species, gender, and race: a proliferation of minoritarian subjectivities, alliances that gain their own power from the non-possessive positionality, the sensitive and vulnerable carnality of joyful bodies.

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