Monthly Archives: October 2013

On Public Libraries

By Andrea Bonfanti

In our society, the term public has lost a lot of its potential positive meaning. Public should be of everyone as needed, without the burden of single custody. However, the current system of value is one of obsessive possession rather than actual usefulness. If we were to quote Marx, the slogan “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” does not apply anymore because, it seems, people do not need, people want. For this reason, public libraries are often depicted as obsolete buildings with inefficient staff and dusty books. This short essay aims to show that public libraries are in fact beneficial spaces to our contemporary society for two reasons. First, these public institutions represent a counter-space to capitalist production due to the opportunity they offer: sharing goods. Second, public libraries are places for research of personal interests, therefore individual achievement, and for the production of new and common knowledge. In that, they oppose the capitalist ideology, which based on an illusionary principle of individualism (alienation).

Libraries have played a major role in humans’ societies since ancient times. The destruction of the Ancient Library of Alexandria was felt by its contemporaries as a major loss for the whole of humanity. Later, what is now called “The Renaissance” sparkled when a building-less library, made out of thousands of books and manuscripts, was fled from the Byzantine Empire into Western Europe after the “fall of Constantinople”, in 1453. More recently, Lenin, in a short work titled ‘What can be done for public education’, compared sarcastically the state of American libraries, with millions of books and open access to virtually anyone, to that of Russian libraries or, rather, their quasi-total absence. Libraries then, have always been a point of reference for society.
Public libraries’ role as places of sharable knowledge is of primary importance in opposing to capitalist system of production. In order to survive, capitalism needs a market in a constant state of hunger for new commodities. In this viscous circle, on one side capitalism production fills the market with a huge variety of constant new products while the market, on the other side, sustains capitalism through profit. The maintenance of this market has terrible effects, such as labourers’ exploitation, dramatic climate changes and constant humans’ alienation. Public libraries hit the very core of capitalist production, namely the market, because they stimulate the active principle of sharing goods, knowledge, and consequently of non-production. Individuals use the product for the duration of their need and, once they are done with it, put it back in the circle, for the benefit of others. The market request of a product is then weakened, if not cancelled completely. These institutions’ service to share goods puts on the spot how unnecessary the capitalist production actually is and weakens its frantic race. More than that, libraries also represent a place where individuals can grow personal passions.

Public libraries are places for the growth of individuals and for the sequential production of new and, possibly common, knowledge. The current capitalist ideological system spreads the illusionary idea that capitalist production can provide personal fulfilment through a variety of individualised commodities. In reality however, individuals become but mere consumers of whatever product is offered within a limited range of possible choices. We then find ourselves arbitrarily lost in choices such as in which colour to buy our new cell-phone or tablet. We need to have “our music”, “our mac” and “our kindle” when studying, travelling, living. Surrounded by such an abundance of commodities we do not question, for example, when, why or how that certain product had already become a need for us. Without engaging here with the difference between technology for the common good and capitalist technology, it is nevertheless important to pay attention on how individuals lose their own individuality and the response that public libraries offer. In this respect, these public institutions offer the same product as the market, knowledge, but in a sharable way. Through libraries individuals can research topics of personal interest and conduct private research without the necessity to purchase goods and, therefore, dwelling outside the capitalist ideology of the “must be mine”. Furthermore, public libraries, because they are public and based on the principle of common use, stimulate the free exchange of ideas. They then become forums for discussion and for the production of communal and new knowledge for the improvement of common conditions.

In conclusion, this essay has tried to engage primarily with the importance of public libraries in an anti-capitalist approach to knowledge. These institutions have been a communal good since the ancient times, from ancient Egypt to modern times. In our era, an epoch characterised by capitalist system of production and ideology, public libraries are important more than ever before. They represent a challenge to capitalism because they undermine the market request and consequently, the production itself. They also offer a genuine approach towards learning without the addiction of possession- the “must be mine” ideology. Furthermore, due to their public feature, these institutions stimulate communal discussion and knowledge production.

The Real Politics of Climate Change

In a recent Guardian blog posting, John Abraham and Dana Nuccitelli have correctly identified that the global warming ‘debate’ isn’t about science, but about politics. On that point we can agree, but thereafter, almost everything they say precisely fails to expose the status of this political which is at stake in anthropogenic climate change.

Of course the power of climate scepticism cannot be denied. It has been a vigorous force working to prevent action on the restriction of greenhouse gas emissions. Also correct is the observation by Abraham and Nuccitelli, widely supported by research on climate and the media, that ‘denialism’ has mainly been underpinned by ‘free-market’ ideology and its supporting institutions. However, their suggestion that the route towards ‘sustainability’ is through the co-optation of that ideology, with the implementation of a cap-and-trade solution to the control of greenhouse gas emissions is, at best, flawed, and at worst, utopian.

For instance, is the conclusion that, ‘The debate should be about how to best achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions with maximum economic benefit’ really convincing? Even the free-trading ideologue can clearly see that this is an ill-disguised attempt to capture the dominant language of orthodox economics for the political project of controlling greenhouse gas emissions. What this project neglects, however, is the obvious fact that the committed free-trader precisely rejects any notion of a higher, or universal, project in the guidance human actions. What they fear in the climate change ‘debate’ is precisely the emergence of a ground in nature itself, which delimits the possibilities of free human self-realisation. Adam Smith, for instance, imagined markets as enabled by a particular kind of ecology that, once established, could be assumed as a stable, self-regulating basis of exchange. Frederik Albritton Jonnsson has recently wonderfully outlined some of the contraditions stemming from such ideas and their application in his Enlightenment’s Frontier.

The point is that the ‘denialist’ dogma is not simply a contingent ideological obsession. It is a consequence of a traumatic encounter with the real. Line no other threat from ‘nature’, anthropogenic climate change raises the prospect of the collapse of the unspoken environmental assumptions that have sustained the idea that well-being and justice can be guided by the invisible hand. We need to accept the intense reality of this trauma for those who are in denial. Indeed, it may even explain the counter-intuitive observation that denialism has become more popular as the evidence for human induced atmospheric change has hardened.

Rather than responding to this traumatic encounter by fetishitically clinging to it, that is to say by claiming that the market can indeed become the instrument of future atmospheric control, we should work to aid the process of ideological transference. We should embrace ‘denialism’ as a positive symptom of capitalist contradiction, and work to render its meaning more apparent, more self-conscious to its subjects. We must work to show the connections between the crisis in ‘nature’ and the ideological contradictions that this produces. In this, a little knowledge of history may be of enormous importance.

Is it not remarkable, for example, that Abraham and Nuccitelli ignore almost the entire historical context of capitalist development that has led to the current situation? The present of ever rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere is seen as an almost accidental circumstance. This has crucial consequences for their willingness to pursue a market solution, and for its limits. There is no analysis, for example, of how the global economy came into being. Nor is there any reflection on why capitalism is so dependent on fossil fuels of the kind offered by Timothy Mitchell’s excellent recent book Carbon Democracy. This is a grave fault given that cap-and-trade is clearly reliant on an institution setting a cap that can act as the foundation to a market. Nor is there any analysis of that most fundamental process of historical capitalism, accumulation: “Accumulate, accumulate, that is Moses and the Prophets”.

It is not that cap-and-trade cannot work for some abstract reason, it may. Rather, it is that the real, political question ironically, but far from accidentally, remains unacknowledged by Abraham and Nuccitell. That is whether such a cap could ever be sustained against the profound social and political power of capitalist finance and industry. How is any carbon cap to be maintained against the logic of the accumulation of capital? We have seen in the past decade the profound crisis, political, social and economic, that accompanies any slowdown in capitalist growth. Such a crisis is met with all the resources of the capitalist political structure precisely to maintain accumulation. What political structure could work to maintain a cap if it contradicted the requirements of accumulation?

More than this, if one is willing to set a cap on greenhouse emissions, and fight the battles necessary in terms of the struggle against vested interests, then why not simply go ahead and do so? Why not just make the arbitrary judgment that humanity chooses to survive! Why not just impose the cap politically. Why establish a trade in anything? Why establish a market in carbon credits, a market in precisely the matter of our own destruction? It is precisely to avoid the necessity of making a truly political decision, that is, the choice to survive, that Abraham and Nuccitelli retreat to an alliance with the free-marketeers. Ultimately this the real of the politics of climate change. Not whether, but how, we shall frame a properly communist control over the climatic fate of us all.