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Type
Essay
Category
politics of despair

All worlds die

At the twentieth anniversary of independent media outlet Democracy Now! in early December, Noam Chomsky gave a talk in which he declared that the US election may have doomed the human race. Despite promising international agreements, Chomsky mused that without radical action on climate change, the prospect of starvation, mass migration and potential nuclear war was the likely path for the human race. For a champion of the causes of oppressed peoples globally, it was a surprisingly dour message.

Yet even before Trump’s victory it was difficult to engage in contemporary political debate without joining in a shared sense that the world is ending; not just ecologically, but politically and economically. Our global social order is transitioning from something we have long-assumed timeless – the Western model of global capitalism, and the political system that ensures its control – into a much more contested field. We have strayed from the predictable territory of our politics and economics textbooks, from the familiar backdrop of the post-Second World War liberal democratic era – with its American-sponsored institutional and geopolitical framework – to an uncharted moment of history.

As we stand at this precipice of likely ecological catastrophe and an uncertain  future, we might remind ourselves that this is not the first time humanity has stared into an apparently apocalyptic future. It was Rosa Luxemburg who warned at the height of the First World War, that when ‘at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or [regress] into Barbarism’.

At many points, history has threatened to devolve into barbarism as it does today. We are presently witnessing the political institution we have known for some time, liberal democracy, fragment from the inside and grow ever thinner in its hegemony. If we are to have hope, how we respond to these challenges is of profound importance, much more so than in previous eras.

 

If anything defines the notion of modernity in the political sense, it is that humanity is able to act consciously as a collective to alter its own history. For Marx, this was the defining feature of the proletariat: the only class in history with the power and will to shape its own future, and to recreate society not in its own image, but in such as a way that the proletariat itself, as a category, would cease to exist. This, Marx observed, was the genuine break that defined modernity: history would be determined by a class that would abolish itself.

Its failure thus far to do so is not due to its lack of capability – to which the successful revolutions of the twentieth century can attest – but to successful counter-revolutions and an increasingly reactionary liberal class. In order to understand how this happened, we need to look at how defensive the liberal stance has become.

Contemporary mainstream scholars and political leaders are presently at pains to ‘shore up’ the missing ethics and values that have held First World nations together with relative political stability and only the occasional coup. The wave of post-Cold War victory lap titles, such as Francis Fukuyama’s End of History and Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations, reflect the constructivist notion that liberalism is the only long-term game in town. Intellectuals and political actors ensure this is the case; witness the enforcers of liberal order Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Barack Obama issuing war or sanctions on non-complying nations (Serbia, Iraq, Iran, Russia) in the name of international peace and stability. This immense drive for order achieved by the few, maintained by armies and nation-states, occurs only with the implicit recognition that these institutions could be swept aside if humanity so decided.

The collapse of the USSR demonstrated that there are few certain end-points when it comes to history. In the mid-nineteenth century it was so rarely imagined that the proletariat would ever come to political power that we can forgive Marx and Engels for exaggerating the likelihood of workers’ success. To these Hegelian scholars, liberal rationalisations of modern society could only be conducted under the spectre of the communism destined to crash their bourgeois party, and all politics were fittingly conducted within this communist horizon. Perhaps the anarchists were more accurate predictively: while the overwhelming tendency of mankind is towards communal freedom, such moments are a lot more fleeting and fragile than their unified class interest would suggest. The Revolutionary Catalonias and Paris Communes are dangerous exceptions that the ruling class could not allow to continue – and yet they fleetingly manifested the utopian tendencies that bourgeois society only dared to entertain in dreams.

However, the political, economic and ecological problems of the twenty-first century are not a unique juncture in mankind’s history. Rather, we have reached the climax of a plot that was written more than seventy years ago. Chomsky lays responsibility for our doom-laden environmental predicament at the hands of the United States’ unparalleled power and imperial ambition post-Second World War. This is an indictment upon the most powerful nation to ever have existed but it is not aberrant behaviour: as Chomsky himself argues, this sticks to the script of American hegemony since 1945. The problems that face us today are in fact the culmination of centuries of capitalist social formations.

 

A pervasive problem of the present is the tendency to individualise political responsibility, as well as to blame the collective character of humanity for our crises. But these attributions should be understood as politically neutralising strategies that work to undermine a sense of collective agency.

Nostalgia and intergenerational warfare are ways in which this game plays out. They seek to locate blame upon one or two generations of humans (without questioning the morals or courage of their predecessors). Millennials were gifted economic stagnation and ecological catastrophe by Boomers, who were in turn gifted white-picket fences and suburban sprawl by their parents, who were in turn gifted two world wars to fight. At what point does it end?

By extrapolating humanity’s ills out of the short-sightedness of one or two generations of the middle class, we not only unfairly privilege them as political actors, good or bad, but we also produce a politically useless critique. Condemnation of people’s ignorance or stupidity in the hopes of provoking them to change their evil ways also neglects the role of ‘affect’ and psychology in our social order.

Appropriated Eastern philosophies and pop psychologies have been utilised to create a whole ‘Happiness Industry’, and yet cultural critics still implore us to overcome our individual deficiencies as the primary route for social change.

This pseudo-constructivist wisdom is an attempt to obliterate political agency by dissolving internal conflicts, and constructing us as collaborators in our own destruction. Ecological destruction is simply proof that we didn’t care enough about the environment; Hillary Clinton’s loss is evidence that we simply don’t value women in our society; poverty-alleviation programs won’t work because few of us actually care about the lives of homeless people. As true as any of these claims may be, their end political result is the reproduction of a readily commodifiable green ethics – ‘buy local’, ‘support your community’ – and a political program limited to the most gradual reformism, which at its core marginalises the potential for even moderate democratic demands. Clinton’s primary campaign repeatedly attacked Bernie Sanders for being irresponsible and hasty, rather than satisfied with the meagre victories of the Obama Administration. The subtext was: ‘Can you not appreciate the benefits of gradualism? Are you ungrateful that you now have Obamacare?’ What Sanders and his supporters articulated was that this ‘appreciation’ was a tactic to undermine the momentum behind actual change. A call for moderate or gradual change is a call for the annihilation of the concept’s meaning altogether. Clintonites did not want to change themselves; they wanted the left to be less radical in its ambitions, instead.

It is ahistorical to assume that our problems are individual rather than structural, unique rather than empirical. The core argument behind Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything is that the ecological struggle opens up new avenues of struggle and resistance – and the possibility of catastrophic failure. True, this may be a new moment of struggle, but it is not a sui generis political situation; it in fact takes place on the same platforms that workers, women and environmentalists have fought upon for decades. It is important to emphasise this, as much climate debate forecloses the prospect of genuine political struggle, in place of a secular millenarianism in which nature appears to be wreaking its havoc upon a petulant humanity, which like a latter-day Prometheus, has lit the fire of the ‘Anthropocene’. As ecologist Andreas Malm argues in Fossil Capital, this now-commonly used signifier of history – as ecologically pre- and post-human – locates guilt upon the primordial instincts of mankind. It neglects the role of what has actually caused this climate crisis: the use of fossil fuels and, more importantly, the political-economic system underlying it.

It can be difficult to accept this banality, that this epoch defining event is the result of social structures rather than wrongdoing or immorality. Explaining these banal results as something more-than, we give them an unjust reason, a justification even, which in turn makes their awful nature somehow understandable, even reasonable. The end of the world due to two hundred years of human activity is harder to process than an epic tragedy of human guilt. When climate activists argue that ‘the world is ending unless we stand against it’, they end up merely arguing, ‘the world is ending’, committing themselves – and us – to an aesthetic politics, such that it may be written that at least we were on the right side. What else aside from tragic heroes do we aspire to be when we refer to leaving a ‘better world for our children?’ This perspective can only be written from idealistic lament of the already-enlightened, appealing to others to wake up to their common sense. This is the politics of despair.

 

 

The idea that humankind is facing a unique catastrophe in its potential destruction is a crudely self-important statement. One need not even mention the history of this planet’s catastrophes, with the demise of several species of humanoid creatures, let alone the destruction of entire races of fully conscious homo sapiens. Prior to the rise of European dominance, propelled mostly through capitalist social relations, entire systems of feudal rule had collapsed around the world, from the Malian Empire to the Tokugawa Shogunate, from the Aztecs to Mughal Empire and Qing Dynasty China. The modern nation-state system began with the annihilation of one empire after another. Mediaeval African philosopher Ibn Khaldun’s direct witnessing of the crumbling North African empires of his day led him to assert that the crumbling, rather than the empire, was the norm. From a global perspective this only becomes more pertinent: whole civilisations collapsed within the Americas and Australia, with various semblances of these surviving today. The destruction of systems of feudal, traditional and alternative rule set the precondition for European dominance, yet we somehow only consider now to be the end of the world – because it will destroy the conditions of our Europeanised middle-class capitalism. This hubris was precisely what comedian George Carlin addressed – ‘the planet is fine, the people are fucked’.

Chomsky was correct when he argued that climate change is an unprecedented crisis and that mankind’s potential for destruction is unmatched. Yet culturally, the twenty-first century does not have the luxury of claiming ‘the end of world’ as a unique historical moment. We have no other choice than to fight climate change, but we are not unique in human history to be living in an apocalyptic predicament. Many societies have seen ‘the end of history’. The First World War was only the final gut-wrenching body blow to the old world, upon the corpse of which the Second World War was fought, and the new world order erected. Many of the great writers before these events, from Leo Tolstoy to Natsume Sōseki, directly grappled with the realisation of a passing era, and the decline not only of aristocracy but of the old world itself. These writers were highly aware of the passing of their era and realised that in the modern age of European hegemony there was no choice but to adapt.

Similarly across great Asian empires – many historically far greater, with far longer traditions, than their Western counterparts – countries embarked upon deliberate campaigns of ‘modernisation’, establishing political-legal frameworks mirroring the European nation-state and capitalist economic relations, with the awareness that they could either sink – like China in the nineteenth century – or swim – like Japan in the twentieth.

In contrast, defiance towards the fading of the past, or the imagined past, manifests as fascism in recent European history. Simone de Beauvoir paints a vivid image of this impotent rebellion against the now in Salazar’s Portugal: ‘there is one country where the cult of the past is erected into a system … [Salazar] spent so much money having the different types of old Portuguese houses reproduced on a reduced scale that barely four children could be lodged in this monstrous village.’ And while progressive pundits draw upon this logic in critiquing the authoritarian nostalgia of today’s leaders, and their harking back to days of strongmen and cultural uniformity, it equally applies to their liberal critics.

‘Progressive’ politics – even the name is problematic – risks falling into the easy trap of liberal, commodified identitarianism that fetishises an open and dynamic society while simultaneously surrounding itself with commodified nostalgia, and which instantly caves under any serious pressure from the right-wing, all the while bemoaning the opportunities that it itself squandered.

The mad nostalgic scramble for the past is the psychological displacement of a universally recognised political fact: our present era is ending. We live in a time where ‘the normal rules don’t apply anymore’; where political science – which has a questionable history regardless – is increasingly useless in understanding trends that it simply can’t capture. The political visions that are winning are not those that construct the present as the sum of a recent past – recall Justin Trudeau’s inclusion of women in his cabinet ‘because it’s 2015’ – but those that construct the present as the attempt to actualise historic failures: Trump appealing to white anxieties, Corbyn fulfilling Labour’s left-wing promise a hundred years late, Sanders turning the bourgeois rhetoric of the Democratic Party into a material reality. These perennial losers have emerged as victors because the ‘now’ that we live in has been blasted apart by factors beyond sheer chronological progression.

Compare this to the recent years of revolt, when left-wing, anti-establishment leaders and parties gained momentum and, to an extent, real power in France, Greece, Spain and Turkey, only to crash upon the shores of ‘political reality’ – the doctrine that ‘there is no alternative’, and its morality plays of austerity. Our political strategies, only half-hearted then, have been blown out of the water by the unpredicted groundswell of enthusiasm in the left’s old and decrepit institutions such as the British Labour Party and the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. Our failure has been to consider the terms of our present crises permanent.

The revival of fascism as a political category says more about the left’s scrambling for conceptual clarity and desire for relevance than providing actual analytical use. In contrast, it is worth recalling Marx’s summary of Louis Bonaparte’s successful coup d’état and subsequent dictatorship, as ‘the only form of government possible at a time when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation’. British Marxist Ralph Miliband made the concurrent argument that fascism does not succeed when the ruling class get desperate – that is, when the left is too strong – but rather when the ruling class has delegitimised itself and the left is too weak to supplant them.

The problem is not so much that the world is ending, but that it was not the left who ended it decades or even centuries ago, when the prospect of socialism first arose. This is not mere historical anachronism: no collective actor can be said to be the main historical agent in the same way as the left can. The great gamble of socialism is that humanity has set itself no problem it cannot solve. If anything has defined the left, it is that it is the answer to its own questions, offering radical change beyond the posturing and co-optations of the far right.

Perhaps we should not celebrate the demise of this world, for we do face the very real spectre of barbarism, but we should recognise the brutal and limiting nature of the world in which our societies have flourished. The fall of the neoliberal era is a necessary condition of a more peaceful and prosperous world.

As another world on this Earth comes to an end, only those who offer a vision into the new age are capable of being politically relevant.

 

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Angus Reoch is a freelance writer and essayist from Sydney. His writing has appeared in Overland, New Matilda and Hong Kong Review of Books.

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