Crisis and Catastrophe
Provincializing the Global
Governing the Earth
Today’s note is a hodge-podge of ideas and observations that I will deal with in greater detail over the next few weeks. The inspiration for this exploration is a throwaway remark in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s piece on world making:
While there are many other ‘sciences,’ economics is the most important discipline through which we govern the human world. We know the economically governed world is prone to boom and bust cycles, but I am willing to concede that both the capitalist and the socialist economy raises human welfare on average as long as the humans aren’t exceptions - plantations, concentration camps and colonies (ok, those are pretty large exceptions, but bear with me).
However broadly construed, the economic model of governance stops with the globe and is incapable of helping us govern the earth. What new knowledges do we need to step out of our narrow global concerns and embrace the earth as the natural unit of governance?
But is there a single earth?
Think about it this way: globalization was prompted by an old idea of the ‘one world’ which was being realized by economic and political unity. But now it’s clear that while we are lashed together by gas pipelines and undersea cables, there are multiple globes that live together in an uneasy coexistence: the Chinese ‘One Belt One Road’ world isn’t the same as the Axis of Good world. The globe has splintered into many and perhaps the earth will also do so: most extremely, because the life world of a bacterium is nothing like the life world of a human being, even as we both inhabit a world. Martin Guinard, Bruno Latour and Ping Lin open the issue of e-flux from which I excerpted the quote from Dipesh Chakarabarty with the following lines:
The politics of the earth will be ontological from the outset, and so will its crises and catastrophes. And why wouldn’t it be: perhaps we were comfortable because all our secular activities presupposed the division between nature and society and despite many conceptual and economic crises, we were able to maintain that division until the ‘end of history’. The much awaited political revolution should be about overthrowing the nature-society division as much as checking the power of fossil fuel companies.
Metaphysical aside: why do we unreflexively assume that there’s ‘one world’ or ‘one earth’? Just because I can point to the earth from the Moon (hence count it as one from outer space) doesn’t mean that we can count it as one from the inside, as inhabitants of the planet.
Counting isn’t neutral to context any more so than velocities are absolute
And here’s an additional twist: to deny oneness isn’t necessarily to accept manyness or zeroness - in some contexts that which isn’t one is zero or two or some other number, but all of these presuppose contexts in which a certain model of counting applies.
There are puzzles in mathematics and logic hidden inside our unreflexive acts of ‘one worlding’. In the same vein: just because I can count you as one from the outside doesn’t mean that I should count myself as one from the inside. When Walt Whitman famously said ‘I contain multitudes’, he signaled a deep connection between plurality, paradox and the self.
Philosophy and poetry go hand in hand remember……
Crisis and Catastrophe
But before we take even one step forward in that journey from the globe to the earth, we have to look back and ask ourselves: why are we not able to contain climate change as a crisis and why are we hurtling towards catastrophe? Not just climate change: we are unable to contain so many crises - ecological collapse, inequality, fake news…. you name it.
In short, is catastrophe becoming the default - the state of exception becoming the rule?
Why is the liberal system unable to address climate change in the way it addressed pollution or the ozone hole? The standard story with the US being a hegemon and fossil fuel companies capturing half the political spectrum - and therefore making it impossible for the US to be a leader in the energy transition - is both true and unenlightening. We know energy transitions are hard. It took a while for gasoline to replace coal and for automobiles to replace horses. Is that all there’s to it: the stickiness and inertia of energy transitions with existing energy monopolists controlling the political landscape in liberal democracies?
Is it that the US’s supremacy is so closely tied to fossil fuels that there’s both explicit and tacit resistance across the elite? Is it a story that goes well beyond the US and is central to the capitalist system as a whole - the story of globalization being the story of fossil fuel expansion?
Or is it an even deeper, almost metaphysical clash, of humanity (certainly elite humanity) being unwilling to accept limits to growth and endless expansion. And setting climate change aside, why is this system producing extreme inequality, creeping authoritarianism and an increasing retreat into the Matrix?
Is it all the above and more?
The first couple of reasons above are ‘crisis’ type reasons, while we are edging towards catastrophe as we go down the list. And to be honest, it’s possible that energy transitions are always accompanied by catastrophe - didn’t the Mongols sweep across Asia because of their skill with a new energy source - the horse? Wasn’t the clash between Britain and Germany fueled by access to coal on both sides? The same for information - the printed word being a source of knowledge as well as religious violence. We need to look closely at energy and information as twinned sources of crises and catastrophes. Like how bitcoin mining (and crypto in general) is increasingly integrated into the catastrophe complex:
It’s in that context that a few weeks ago, I talked about ‘overflow’ and how it pervades our world: an overflow of hate, of information, of carbon and so on. Overflow has many other cognates: surplus, waste, accumulation and an antonym: efficiency, and an allied litany of negative consequences including decay and failure. We are of course at the beginning of a failure regime caused by the excesses of our current system; an excess of carbon to be sure, but also that of finance, information etc etc. These excesses can be ‘sensed’ in one of two ways: crisis and catastrophe.
My crisis can be your catastrophe: after the invading Spaniards had slaved the indigenous peoples to exhaustion and their appetite for Chinese goods hadn’t abated, they faced a crisis: where do they go for more slave labor to extract the silver and sugar to pay for their imports?
Answer: Africa. And the European crisis became a catastrophe on two other continents.
Europe lurched from crisis to crisis with revolutions and bubbles dotting the continent. The catastrophe also grew wings, spreading to Asia as the colonial spoils from the Americas fueled European expansion elsewhere. Once the winning end of the balance of payments crisis, by the nineteenth century, China was engulfed in the catastrophe, forced at gunpoint to be addicted to opium and then dismembered for extraction. The century of humiliation, as the Chinese call it.
Unfortunately, it became impossible to export catastrophe to the rest of the world while sticking to crisis internally and in the first half of the twentieth century, catastrophe finally landed upon Europe. In its wake, many a drowning voyager was washed on to the shores of America. Others never made it, committing suicide before they could be captured.
Modernity looks cool - and the media has played an disproportionate role in selling the core artifacts of the modern world, whether sports cars or dictators. Our tragedy begins with Walter Benjamin who was prescient in recognizing the aesthetization of politics in the modern era. The Nazis perfected that art celebrated in the cinematic canon by Leni Riefenstahl in the Triumph of the Will. Benjamin was the first to point out that the commodification of art via reproduction presents many opportunities to the propagandist.
In particular, the copy allows us to separate the artwork from its history, and in a return to the image of the real, it allows history itself to be recast as art by making mass mythology possible - that imagined history being foundational to the nation state.
The aesthetization of political reality makes it possible for subtle forms of disbelief to emerge: I honestly don’t think the millions who say they ‘believe’ in the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya or Trump being the second coming of Christ are actually believers in those propositions. Instead, their aesthetic stance helps them split the difference between truth and its image. That intermediation requires cheap, ubiquitous reproduction of aesthetic media forms. Pepe the Frog, the angry Hanuman, and the Jihadi warrior are all artworks whose infinite replicability allows a certain kind of person to wink at the truth on one occasion and organize a lynch mob on another.
The most dangerous people in this media landscape are those who have the power and the reach to influence millions while also having the intelligence and the skill to skirt the truth on all sides. Especially if they are funny on occasion.
The deliberate production of the gap between truth and image leads to widespread learned helplessness - similar to what happens when you’re put into solitary for days and weeks - your mind starts to decouple from the world (because you have no idea what’s true and what’s false) and even the best people are prone to despair.
Provincializing the Globe
It’s precisely that feeling which must have prompted Benjamin to swallow the poison pill. Which brings me to the second emigre I want to talk about today: A.O. Hirschman, who wrote a book called ‘Exit, Voice and Loyalty’ on how people respond to a situation that’s getting worse, at the beginning of which he says that slack is all pervasive in the economy:
If information is overflow, slack is underflow and its true enemy is efficiency.
The great development of the twentieth century was the exit from empire - voice didn’t work. This century’s great development will be the exit from the globe. There’s no exiting the planet except for a few catastrophically rich madmen so how might the exit from the globe happen? The idea of ‘provincializing’ offers some insights.
Someone I have quoted several times in this essay - Dipesh Chakrabarty - is known for his work on ‘Provincializing Europe’ with its claim that European ways aren’t universal; instead they are values of one province of humanity. But Dipesh also recognizes that European enlightenment values were immensely attractive to people across the world:
Equality before the law, free and open relations between the poor and the rich, black and white: these are great achievements. The dream was to make good on the promise of equality, to rid liberalism of its dark side.
Globalization was attractive for precisely that reason: worldwide peace and equality (in principle) with the bad guys being kept in check by the US military. But what if the shadow can’t be excised? What if it was based on an energy system that was kicking its liabilities down the road and the global crisis was always going to precipitate a planetary catastrophe. Maybe globalization needs to be provincialized for the planetary to become the default.
Afterword on planetary reason and planetary mysticism
It will be interesting to read Dipesh Chakrabarty and A.O. Hirschman in parallel but they both run cold, especially Hirschman, who brings an economist’s eye to problems that were clearly catastrophically personal. In contrast, Walter Benjamin is the passionate aesthete, the mystic of modernity.
We need reason as well as passion as we explore the overflow of the global into the planetary, and there might be a natural division of labor: the cold eye of reason putting the global in its provincial place, and the mystic’s surplus celebrating the dawn of the planetary age.