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.
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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.