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James Davis is an Irish writer and film maker based in California. His documentary films include Meeting Room, Safety Orange, and Autonomy and a Song. He is one of the four authors of Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, published by PM Press. He has contributed essays to Race and Class and Confronting Capitalism, edited by Eddie Yuen, George Katsiafikas, and Daniel Burton Rose.

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Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth
Authors: Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen, and James Davis
Foreword by Doug Henwood
Publisher: PM Press/Spectre
ISBN: 978-1-60486-589-9
Published October 2012
Format: Paperback
Size: 8 by 5
Page count: 192 Pages
Subjects: Politics/Current Events

We live in catastrophic times. The world is reeling from the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression, with the threat of further meltdowns ever-looming. Global warming and myriad dire ecological disasters worsen—with little if any action to halt them—their effects rippling across the planet in the shape of almost Biblical floods, fires, droughts, and hurricanes. Governments warn that there is no alternative to the bitter medicine they prescribe—or risk devastating financial or social collapse. The right, whether religious or secular, views the present as catastrophic and wants to turn the clock back. The left fears for the worst, but hopes some good will emerge from the rubble. Visions of the apocalypse and predictions of impending doom abound. Across the political spectrum, a culture of fear reigns.

Catastrophism explores the politics of apocalypse—on the left and right, in the environmental movement—and examines why the lens of catastrophe can distort our understanding of the dynamics at the heart of these numerous disasters—and fatally impede our ability to transform the world. Lilley, McNally, Yuen, and Davis probe the reasons why catastrophic thinking is so prevalent, and challenge the belief that it is only out of the ashes that a better society may be born. The authors argue that those who care about social justice and the environment should jettison doomsaying—even as it relates to indisputably apocalyptic climate change. Far from calling people to arms, they suggest, catastrophic fear often results in passivity and paralysis—and, at worst, reactionary politics.


“Catastrophism comes at the right moment: 2012, the year of The End proclaimed across the political spectrum from deep ecologists to the Mayan Calendarists. Instead of concentrating on the merits of the claims of the various apocalypticians, Jim Davis, Sasha Lilley, David McNally, and Eddie Yuen examine the political function of these claims and find them to be deeply reactionary. This is a controversial book that challenges many of the unexamined assumptions on the left (as well as on the right). It is a warning not to abandon everyday anti-capitalist politics for a politics of absolute fear that inevitably leads to inaction.”

—Silvia Federici, author of Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle

"Bravo! This is the book that has been sorely needed for so long to reveal the dead-end that a politics founded on catastrophic predictions must lead to in terms of either preventing them or actually changing the world.  Essential reading for all those on the left who are concerned with the question of strategy today."
—Leo Panitch, coauthor of The Making of Global Capitalism

“I cannot overstate how critically important this volume is. Catastrophism captures a problem that few have seriously grappled with. Anyone who wishes, as I do, for a new kind of (occupied) politics will have to face this formidable array of theoretically-inspired reflections on the politics of apocalypse.” 

—Andrej Grubacic, coauthor of Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History

"In an age when even Mayan prophecies of the end of the long cycle are turned into prophecies of doom and destruction, this book offers a reasoned and lucid alternative understanding. Definitive and momentous, this book should be mandatory reading for everyone who wishes to comprehend the world we live in and change it for the better."
—George Katsiaficas, author of Asia’s Unknown Uprisings

“This important book aims to end the politics of The End. The authors of Catastrophism claim that apocalyptic politics, though promising to motivate revolutionary transformation, all too often leads to a fear-induced paralysis and cynicism. This book provides a badly needed boost to our political immunity systems against the apocalyptic claims bombarding us in this purported terminal year for our planet.” 

—George Caffentzis, author of In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines, and the Crisis of Capitalism

“This groundbreaking book examines a deep current—on both the left and right—of apocalyptical thought and action. The authors explore the origins, uses, and consequences of the idea that collapse might usher in a better world. Catastrophism is a crucial guide to understanding our tumultuous times, while steering us away from the pitfalls of the past.”
—Barbara Epstein, author of Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s

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What Others Are Saying...


catastrophismCatastrophism: A Review
by Thomas Cheney
Socialist Studies
Summer 2014

"The cultural preoccupation with zombies reveals this ‘catastrophic texture.’ In this way, McNally’s optimistic conclusion provides a fitting culmination of the book: “We need... to uncover the social basis of all that is truly horrifying and catastrophic about our world, as part of a critical theory and practice designed to change it” (p. 127).

The essays in this book each present a sophisticated and nuanced analysis of the politics and discourses of catastrophe. While the message is that the left must not succumb to catastrophic panic and the politics of fear, the authors do not deny that we do indeed live in a catastrophic age. It is not the time, however, for the left to indulge in apocalypticism, to resign itself to the notion that a better society will arise only from the ashes of the current barbarism. This insistence reflects the sober optimism offered by this collection of essays. Accessibly written and rich in analysis, this volume has much to offer any student of contemporary politics."

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catastrophismCatastrophism: A Review
by David Laibman
Science & Society
Volume 78, No. 2
April 2014

"Eddie Yuen’s essay, “The politics of Failure Have Failed: The Environ- mental Movement and Catastrophism” (chapter 1) examines the catastrophic side of ecological thinking, citing the avalanche of recent writing on carbon emissions, global warming, tipping points, deforestation, resource wars, tens of millions of climate refugees, etc., all pointing to some sort of collapse of civilization itself, and calling into question the possibility of any political solution, i.e., of a social organization beyond capitalism that might achieve sustainable human development. He argues, persuasively i believe, that “an undifferentiated narrative of environmental doom is disempowering and encourages feelings of helplessness. . . . The fear elicited by catastrophism disables the left but benefits the right and capital” (21, 41–2). a reoriented radical environmental movement, rooted in networks of communities, can- not wait for capitalism to implode, and for this activism to emerge “it is vital that a movement offer something positive to go with the cold porridge of climate catastrophe” (43)..."

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catastrophismCatastrophism: A Review
by Catherine Friedrich
Irish Left Review
January 28th, 2014

"The final chapter takes a look at catastrophism in pop culture. David McNally, Professor of Political Science at York University, firstly discusses the relationship between capitalism and body panics by linking the rise of early capitalism to body snatching. The commodification of the body and the emergence of a corpse economy created fear among poor and working people, during the 18th century, that their bodies would be lost to medical experiments after their death. This also led to an increase in murders and grave robbing. McNally then discusses the historical origins of monsters, such as Frankenstein, who was constructed from dead body parts of humans and animals, and zombies, the cannibalistic consumer on one hand and the living-dead labourer on the other. McNally argues that the truths about social dynamics embedded in these tales about monsters need to be redeemed and translated into “languages and practices of social and political action."

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catastrophismCatastrophism: A Review
By Michael Schauerte
Socialist Standard
June 2013

"Still, even recognising the limited scope of the book (whether intentional or inevitable), it is a valuable and timely contribution to those who are frustrated by the limitations of the left. And, in addition to Lilley’s critique of the left, the book contains interesting essays dealing with the right-wing version of catastrophism and the Malthusian outlook prevalent among environmentalists."

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catastrophismCatastrophism: A Review
by Robert S. Eshelman
The Brooklyn Rail
March 2013

For Jensen, “To think apocalyptically is not to give up on ourselves, but only to give up on the arrogant stories—religious and secular—that we modern humans have been telling about ourselves.” By contrast, Catastrophism’s authors say that such a view amounts to surrender. It’s a politics of despair, rather than ambition. “[It’s] one way,” says James Davis in Catastrophism, “to shift the focus from the essential questions of public policy, democracy, equality, access to education and health, environment, etc. and onto abstractions about civilization, culture, and threats to the prevailing social order that promises instability and worse.” The doomsayers, you might say, will continue to get what they wish for.

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catastrophismCatastrophism: A Review
Publishers Weekly
March 2013

Each of the four essays in this evenhanded volume examines a facet of the tendency in the "Global North" (i.e., North America and Europe) to view current events in apocalyptic terms. Yuen (Confronting Capitalism, co-editor) believes that "the ubiquity of apocalypse in recent decades has led to a banalization of the concept"; awareness of climate change, for example, has begotten apathy rather than action, and Yuen proposes a return to grassroots activism to solve this. Lilley (Capital and Its Discontents) traces the leftist history of catastrophism, as manifested in hopes of the demise of capitalism, while documentary filmmaker Davis comes at the concept from the right, exploring Judeo-Christian beliefs about disaster and how end-time ideologies tend "to shift the focus from essential questions of public policy... and onto abstractions." In the final essay, McNally (Global Slump) pegs the recent popularity of zombies as arising from "catastrophic imaginings of everyday corporeal vulnerability." The thread connecting these articles is a desire to strip the rhetoric of catastrophism from all sides so that society can confront and solve real threats, and while the prose veers from jargon to straight talk and back again, each author offers valuable contributions to the discourse. 

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catastrophismCatastrophism: A Review
by Jane Shallice
Socialist Resistance
January 21st, 2013

Catastrophism is a collection of essays analysing the obsession with a doom laden future and arguing that whether the left, the right or environmentalists, many have succumbed to an unremitting pessimism and helplessness. For the contributors, the world appears “saturated with instrumental, spurious and sometimes maniacal versions of catastrophism – including right wing racial paranoia, religious millenarianism, liberal panics over fascism, leftist fetishization of the capitalist collapse”.  They have as their essential locus that such a confirmation and acceptance of an apocalyptic future, paralyses and prevents any way of challenging what is popularly assumed to be the inevitable. The response in the book reassert the essential requirements of thinking and undertaking actions which return us to the everyday; “to the idea that revolution grows out of the ordinary prosaic acts of organizing and resistance whose coalescence produces a mass upheaval” and the necessity of those “decidedly mundane activities – strikes and demonstrations meetings speeches leaflets and occupations”. 

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catastrophismCatastrophism: A Review
by Glenn Dallas
San Francisco Book Review
February 7th, 2013

Admittedly, I was most engaged by the closing article, which explored the modern popularity of zombie outbreaks and similar stories, and how they reflect contemporary views and values on catastrophic thinking. It’s a wonderfully down-to-earth examination that backs up many of the arguments made earlier in the book that might have been lost in highfalutin’ narrative.

At its heart, Catastrophism states that fear-based politics are a dead end. Hopefully, this can be the spark for new discussions, more rational debate, and a collective change in direction for government. With well-directed skepticism and fresh eyes, this book is a decent start.

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catastrophismCatastrophism: A Review
by Tom Athanasiou
January 31st, 2013

Doug Henwood’s preface sets the stage nicely. He immediately makes a point that all green pessimists should keep always in mind: “Catastrophe can be paralyzing, not mobilizing.” In fact, it usually is. The challenge is to remember this even as you face the real and present catastrophe that’s now visible on the horizon.[1] It’s a dilemma, no doubt about it, but the way forward, whatever it is, is going to have to take both its horns into proper account. The question is how.

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catastrophismCatastrophism: A Review
by Mark Bergfeld
Socialist Review
January 2013

Catastrophism is a refreshing book that draws out important lessons from history, Marxism and current environmental movements. Its belief in the actuality of changing the world for the better is sorely needed at times when much of the left has given up hopes of the revolutionary and socialist transformation of the system. It reminds us of Gramsci's famous words, "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will".

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catastrophismCatastrophism: A Review
by Ernesto Aguilar
MR Zine
December 12th, 2012

One of the Left's great challenges is to understand when the great watershed of change is upon people and seize the time.  Racism, sexism, inequality, and uncertain futures have weighed heavily on the conscience of many a movement.  For every great moment, hundreds of crushing defeats never to be remembered are handed down.  Once in a rare moon, stunning defeats like the 1965 Selma to Montgomery demonstrations or the Long March galvanize participants and become iconic -- something history recalls as a moral victory that alters the fates of those involved.  But how often does that happen?  It's much more seldom than you'd think.

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catastrophismCatastrophism: A Review
By Ernesto Aguilar
Left Eye On Books
November 4th, 2012

Posited as an intervention of sorts, “Catastrophism” is seemingly aimed to create debate on the Left. And those interests in contemporary Left history are sure to be avid readers. Its premise, that old radical ideas that destitution leads to revolution need reappraisal, deserves closer review. Lilley and company provide much to digest in an excellent book sure to challenge some long-held political contentions.

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catastrophismCrises Can Be Openings
by Sasha Lilley

November 30, 2011

Crises can be openings: moments when the stanchions are kicked out from under the status quo, when the pieties of the recent past fall away and a revitalized sense of collective power takes shape. But crises aren’t always—or only—opportunities for radicals, mechanically ushering legions of the downtrodden to the barricades. In times of crisis the far right often harnesses the insecurities of the precarious, as well as the monied, in the service of xenophobia and austerity. Paradoxically, crises of capitalism are opportunities for capital.

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