This post is the second in our Self-Isolation Reading Group. The reading is from Geoff Mann’s & Joel Wainwright’s ‘Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future‘ (London: Verso, 2017), a ground-breaking exploration of the consequences of the climate crisis for the shifting configurations of political power on a global scale. While Mann and Wainwright focus on climate change, their analysis is as, if not more, relevant for the understanding of the transformation of political power during, and after, the Corona crisis.
You are welcome to post comments, questions, and thinkpieces in response to the article, or the review itself, below. Please observe the standard rules of academic communication; any offensive comments will be deleted.
The discussion session for this reading takes place on 17 April, 4.30-5.30PM, BST, online via Microsoft Teams. All are welcome; the link to join the meeting is here.
The reading we are focusing on this week are Chapters 1 and 2. The introduction is by Milan Stürmer, PhD candidate at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media and research associate at the DFG-research unit ‘Media and Participation‘ at Leuphana University.
(Unless otherwise stated, all quotes are from this week’s reading.)
Many people have recently confessed to the strange feeling of relief they felt when the government finally decided put them under house arrest. Under normal circumstances, this sort of reaction would be unthinkable, but this is a crisis and, in a crisis, it is time for the state to step up to the plate and do its job. Its job of governing us. Properly.
This almost reflexive turn towards the state should not have come as a surprise to readers of Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright. As they summarize in their aptly titled piece The State Will Not Save Us on the issue of dealing with climate change:
To argue that our only hope of meeting the Paris commitments lies with national governments is to argue that sovereign territorial nation-states are the only hope for stable human communities of the future. This is a political or ideological claim, not an environmental or scientific one. The claim that the state (and inter-state cooperation) has the best shot at saving civilization is not based on the state’s proven capacities for environmental management, its record of mitigating environmental damage, or the historical achievements of “sustainable” states. The record on these fronts is actually not good.
This, if you will, is a key condition under which this week’s reading was conceived. Why is the impulse, during a crisis – or at least, during this kind of crisis – to turn to the sovereign state? When disorder looms, why do we, as Mann describes it in a different book, reach for the state “like a panic button”? While Climate Leviathan responds specifically to the processes activated and sustained by (and as) the reaction to the threats of the ongoing climate catastrophe, a similar impulse shapes the way the current health crisis is being managed, down to the level of the individual.
Take, for example, an issue currently discussed at length in German media: the contract tracing app. Other than locking us in our homes, we (humans + virus) are too complex to be managed, given our tendency to move around, gather and disperse and the virus’ tendency to be contagious a long time before any symptoms are triggered. But just because there is a vague recognition that we are not, in fact, a broadband network, that does not mean we can’t aspire to be one. If we could, in an act of anticipatory obedience, all voluntarily install a mobile app to log our proximity to other people, so we can consequently be informed if we were in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case, we might be able to limit the spread of pre-symptomatic transmission and flatten the curve beyond the lockdown.
Once again, as in case of the climate emergency, the conditions within which decisions are made “are marked fundamentally by uncertainty and fear.” By paying attention to the processes through which the crisis is already being managed – or, quite literally, is becoming manageable – can an understanding of “effective reality [… as] a relation of forces in continuous motion and shift of equilibrium” (Gramsci, Selections From the Prison Notebooks) emerge. This is why, following up on last week’s discussion of the future of global governance, Climate Leviathan‘s elaboration of “a framework by which to understand the range of political possibilities” might help us to develop more clarity in how to analytically speak about the future.
Since it is near-impossible to give a short introduction to the selected chapters that would be simultaneously as succinct and as comprehensive as simply reproducing Mann and Wainwright’s figure of the four potential social formations (see figure below), I will instead provide some theoretical background that I think is crucial to an understanding of the status of the this 2×2 grid. As they state, their “aim is not to develop a taxonomy of the world’s futures […but] to capture the significance of these crucial dimensions of the future in these broad trajectories, in an effort to grasp how the world is moving in the face of a necessary conjuncture which is nothing but a product of contingency (since the course of history is not predetermined).”
The key words here are necessity and contingency, as they go to the root of the Hegelian argument that underlines their analysis. These complexities are way beyond the scope of the introduction to this week’s reading – indeed, even Hegel himself speaks of “the very difficult notion of necessity” – but being aware of them is, I think, important to a discussion of the text. (These complexities are, unfortunately, exacerbated by the fact that in a lot of the English-speaking literature both Bedürftigkeit and Notwendigkeit are translated as necessity, though they are profoundly different concepts.) So to avoid turning this into a discussion of the Grundrisse-inspired reading of Hegel we are presented with, I will simply try to give a sense of the complexity behind this thinking about the future.
The key problem, why we picked this reading and why we turn to these theoretical considerations, is how to analytically think about the future. The challenge of this type of consideration is to find a path between on the one hand seeing the future as mechanically determined by the present, and on the other seeing history as ‘just one damned thing after another,’ pure chance making any analysis impossible. Navigating between Scylla and Charybdis, we need to ask ourselves what it means for something to be necessary, without falling into determinism, teleology, or ahistorism.
Let us first leave the question of the future to the side and begin with the concepts of possibility and actuality to understand necessity and contingency. Actuality, in this conception, is not opposed to possibility, rather actuality is first of all possibility. What is actual is possible, how could it be otherwise? Yet the actual is, if you will, just one possible of many. Hegel is very clear on this: “Possibility is what is essential to reality, but in such a way that it is at the same time only a possibility.” In the sense that what is actual is possible, it is fundamentally contingent: it could be otherwise. Yet, the question is why only some possibilities become actualized. And this is where necessity comes into play. Necessity tells us something about the relation between the possible and the actual. To understand necessity should be the aim of our analysis: to describe why this possible is becoming actual and not another. Without necessity, we could not say about anything that ‘it is.’ “Necessity,” Mann writes in a different paper, “is what possibility must have become for there to be anything called ‘history’.”
The challenge is grasping the movement of necessity, that is the movement of negating possibility and moving to actuality, as itself contingent.
“What is necessary cannot be otherwise; but is yet what is possible in general. […] Therefore what is really possible can no longer be something else; under these conditions and circumstances nothing else can follow. […Yet,] this necessity is at the same time relative. – It has, namely, a presupposition from which it begins; it has contingency as its starting point.” (Hegel, Science of Logic)
With this in mind, we can return to the question of the future which prompted our reading. Yet, the question of the future has somehow lost its futurity, since we are actually not talking about the future, but of the necessary conditions of our current situation. But because we are thinking of necessity as necessarily contingent, of the actual as containing the possible and necessity as the movement of its negation, we are not looking for static laws that determine the course of history. From here, we can begin to understand what Mann and Wainwright mean, when they, as quoted above, describe their “effort to grasp how the world is moving in the face of a necessary conjuncture which is nothing but a product of contingency.”
For this week’s introduction, I have started us off by simply highlighting two points, one on the level of observation and one on the level of theory. Firstly, I have stressed the impulse to turn towards the state as a force of our current condition. Secondly, I have elaborated briefly on the importance of the question of necessity (and contingency) when thinking about this current condition. Taken together, they let us follow up on last week’s discussion, connecting our current condition with considerations about the future of global governance.
Thank you, Milan, for this very interesting introduction to the text, as well as to its philosophical underpinnings. As someone interested in state theory, I have been thinking quite a bit lately about our ‘impulse, during a crisis… to turn toward the sovereign state’. This idea strikes me as a kind of bottom-up counterpart to top-down readings of ‘states of exceptions’, or those analytical frameworks that attempt to account for the atypical political powers exercised by state actors in the face (or name) of crisis.
I raised this exact point with a friend in Beirut recently, where the government’s far reaching efforts to keep people apart due to COVID-19 includes an evening curfew. Friends there tell me that the curfew is largely being respected, which is somewhat surprising considering a revolution against the government has been underway since October. At face value, it seemed to me, the virus brought about a drastic shift in many people’s social and political commitments, an about-turn from resistance to acquiesce.
My friend was quick to correct me, however, explaining that many people in Lebanon are taking drastic measures to stay healthy during the current crisis precisely because they do not believe the government will protect them. She pointed out that, with regards to the virus, the broad sense of public distrust in the state has had a socially-atomizing effect; what appears as respect for government directives around curfews and social distancing is instead the sum result of an understandable impulse to turn inward. Individuals and families are staying home because they don’t believe the government is doing enough to protect them, and because many know they won’t have access to basic healthcare should they become ill.
A similar but different logic appears to be at work in Iraq, where a recent New York Times article points to deeply embedded issues of distrust in the state as one of several factors that explains why many Iraqis are hesitant to participate in government-led public health campaigns around COVID-19.
In this light, it seems to me that moments of crisis are more likely to reveal, expose or heighten the existing, historically-informed dynamics of a particular state-society relationship, than they are to somehow change, shift or ‘turn’ them in new directions. In countries where the state is largely seen as perpetrator rather than protector, Mann and Wainwright’s provocative claim that ‘The State Will Not Save Us’ is common sense. Similarly, in countries where citizens appear to look toward the state for safety during crisis, it may be worth asking if we’re actually ‘turning’ at all, or rather, if we’re simply so tightly wound up in the state’s grip that its confines have come to feel like common sense.
Looking forward to reading these chapters, as well as the articles you’ve linked to in your discussion!
Hey Jee, thank you sop much for the thoughtful comment. It goes straight to the heart of some of the stuff I thought about setting up for the discussion on Friday. I was playing it fast and loose in this introductory post, directly transposing things Mann/Wainwright said about the response to the climate crisis onto our current health crisis – knowing full- well that it is not that easy.
I think two of the things you instantly picked up on – what you called the “bottom-up counterpart” as well as the question of the individual – are something I hoped to bring up in the discussion and why I turned to the voluntary contract tracing app. I think there are some key aspects in this example that distinguish it from i.e. the climate crisis and through which I want to respond to your brilliant point (!) about following the government’s curfew because you do not trust the government to help you.
As you rightly point out, “individuals and families are staying home” out of self-protection (and protection of the proximate community), because the threat of illness is very much that of an individual becoming infected. This gives this threat a double-edged quality that I think a lot of the climate debate has not: The individual threat of infection and the societal/global threat of economic collapse sometimes seem arranged in a catch 22, playing one out against the other.
Which is the question of the future I wanted to raise. While the response to the threat of infection might not lie in turning to the state (depending on, as you rightly point out, the particular, localized individual-society-state relation) – it is an entirely different issue for “what comes after,” where the state’s (imagined or real!) capacity to organise our collective lives will most likely be the centre of attention.
The difference between a curfew and the contract tracing app is that the contract tracing app does not protect you in the individualized way you highlight for the evening curfew. It precisely is aimed at being able to work again, making the wheels of the economy turn again; knowing that you can’t protect yourself, but taking that risk. If you end up on public transport with an infected person, tough luck, this app will not protect you. But it will warn you of a potential infection ex post but before you show any symptoms, thereby – hopefully – reducing the number of people you might end up infecting. To me, it seems to be partly a response to the realisation that the state, or state-like technocratic institutions, are finding it quite difficult to enact their “unique capacity to organize our collective lives” (Mann/Wainwright, The State Will Not Save Us) and we, as individuals, aim to become more managable in this regard. The easier we make it for the state to manage us, the sooner it will be able to manage the crisis.