Archive for oktober 2011

“Le silence eternel des ces espaces infinis m’effraie”. 

[“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread”].

– Blaise Pascal (1670) –

Her følger utdrag fra min masteroppgave, Beyond the End of History (2011), som jeg skrev på engelsk.  Jeg har ikke prioritert å oversette disse passasjene, bare redigert dem, utelatt unødige detaljer og omskrevet litt her og der (vil på forhånd unnskylde eventuelle stilistiske feil; man er jo blind for egne mangler). I introen annonserte jeg følgende:

«Though relegated to the back burner, the larger considerations of ”post-abundance” and material collapse remain inseparable from the commanding question of this thesis.  The real metaquestion is: does liberal democracy really represent ”the end of history” in  the face of a potential ecological disaster or are there new waves of histories awaiting us? In other words: is there a vaster heaven above? Whether we are at a terminal stage of history or just at a terminal stage before the initiation of a novel epoch, remains a conundrum. Though these sweeping vistas are kept at bay in the coming chapters, a boomerang will recur with vengeance in the conclusion and force us into an acquaintance with the shadow of future. The spectre of material collapse and post-abundance will hopefully lead us to an Archimedean point which enables us to pose adequate inquiries about where the torrents of history might flow».

* * * * * *


“Pascal’s Wager” [le Pari de Pascal] is the name given to an argument due to Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) for believing, or for at least taking steps to believe in God. As he saw it, it was safer to bet on God’s existence than to bet against it. Pascal’s Wager is a powerful metaphor: do we dare to bet against a possible ecological collapse, and leave the foundations of our economic and political system unquestioned? Perhaps nothing will happen, and all the preceding passages on [the current] mass extinction were the fancy of just another alarmistic discourse, the [doomsday scenarios] of the 1970s digitally remastered.

If we bet on the possibility of collapse within the next decades, then we must find an answer to the question “what we must do?” Both bets have repercussions, and so does the indecisive “neutral” middle-ground of the agnostics.  How much knowledge should we have before an informed decision is made? Næss would say that we can never know enough. The snapshot of empirical events presented in this chapter is certainly selective. Some scientists may disagree with the statements on looming disaster, but both peak oil and the notion of mass extinction are mainstream today. Doomsday scenarios are no longer sectarian by nature.

The issue of climate change for instance, has so far – at best – produced nostrum with limited resonance, since many emerging economies are not willing to diminish their carbon emissions yet. Socio-economic catch-up is their first priority. Why should they be denied the same material standard as the developed world? So goes the argument. The climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009 ended with a whimper: the governments failed to concert strategy and pool their effort, and no solution has as yet been advanced.

Much of this failure is due to what Kenneth Waltz labels the anarchy of the international state system. Though this anarchy is not absolute: superpowers and great powers have certainly a greater say, and the lesser powers bandwagon the mightier ones. But still there is no omnipotent and planetary sovereign which could impose its will in instances like the climate summit in Copenhagen.

As long as the international system of states prevails, deep ecologists and other green radicals probably have little scope to advance their views on ecological issues. And that is the case domestically as well: as implied in chapter four and five, the inextricable nexus between market forces and political establishments is also a major confinement. But is it possible to see anything beyond the horizon of what Fukuyama calls “the End of History”? It is difficult to provide a simple answer here, but the political status quo might already be faltering due to the financial crisis alone. And if the predicaments of the Anthropocene evolve more drastically in the next decades, a denouement might also haunt the liberal democracies.

Nonetheless, every real existing regime today is heading towards perilous times of unprecedented challenge. That applies to nominal democracy as well as unconcealed despotism. If a planetary breakdown in the fabric of nature occurs within the next generations, it will be interesting to see how the caretakers of prevailing systems are going to survive the watershed. A return to the political status quo ante will be quite wearisome to say the least. It is premature to exclude an event where liberal democracy meets its Nemesis. In cyclical terms, one age hostile to a specific Weltanschauung might be succeeded by another more receptive to its ambitions and so forth until the end of human history. Not “the end” in  a linear Hegelian sense adopted by the epigone Fukuyama, but the end of material existence as such.

It is possible that both endpoints might coincide: a Fukuyaman stalemate being the eschatological accomplice of physical extermination. The “progressive” view of history would then be “vindicated”, relegating any notion of cycles to the dustbin. Perhaps no (human) witnesses would remain to affirm such a Hegelian “victory”, but a tree falling in the forest when nobody hears it still makes a sound.

Are there options left against a potential encounter between the “historical” and material endpoints? As of 2011, Fukuyama’s terminal as an eternal objective condition seems questionable. The ideological stasis might not have been exceeded yet, but the surface of planet earth is changing at a pace where deficient theoretical – and hence practical – ingenuity leaves future to the confinement of punitive circumstances.

In light of the prospects above, I ask “what is to be done?” This “we” could be  deep ecologists or some other radical group. The common denominator of these groups could be the search for alternative political ways beyond liberal democracy and/or Neoliberalism, which do not necessarily end up in totalitarianism. Also, thinkers from the past of different stripes should be consulted: whether they are hibernating or consigned to oblivion by the ravages of time, they might shed some light on our current situation in analogous terms. Hence, the approach to the history of ideas should not resemble the way scavengers approach their carrion. And there should be no cordon sanitaire around past thinkers who are deemed radioactive.

Many subversives might for instance scourge the prospect of consulting Liberals like Adam Smith (1723-1790) or John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), which is understandable along subversive lines. But these thinkers had insights regarding resource depletion. From Adam Smith  – most famous for his notion of “the invisible hand” – to John Stuart Mill early theorists of the wealth of nations were pessimistic about their societies’ long-term prospects for growth, and assumed that the productivity gains from specialization and the division of labour would be thwarted after a certain point by exhaustion of the soil and population increase. Smith and Mill argued that growth was expected to peter out after a time, arrested by changes endogenous to the growth process itself, and giving rise to a growthless stationary state.

The example of Smith and Mill is not a digression, because it captures the essence of the law of diminished returns: in manufacturing, diminishing returns set in when investment in the form of additional inputs does not cause a proportional increase in the rate of productivity.

While this is not exactly analogous to the processes that cause diminishing returns in increasingly more complex societies or an increasingly more complex science (ibid.) – where disciplines fail to communicate with each other – the term “diminishing return” might be helpful in contemplating some of the challenges ahead. In analogous terms, would specialization and division of labour between scientific disciplines be thwarted due to diminished returns? If so, what are the consequences in terms of finding alternative energy sources? This could be an additional research project of ecopolitical interest.

Consulting past thinkers – whether they are Smith, Marx, Heidegger or some  pre-modern traditionalists – could be a challenging task. They might shed light on some current predicaments in analogous terms, but the past is a foreign country. The commensurability with our own time is uncertain. Therefore we must also look beyond the horizon of our present and try to imagine an alternative future which follows a different trajectory. This is the task that Wallerstein calls utopistics: the analysis of possible utopias, their limitations, and the constraints on achieving them.

During the Cold War (and in Eastern Europe immediately after its end), Utopia had become a synonym for Stalinism and had to designate a program which neglected human frailty and original sin. As Fredric Jameson sees it, the relationship between Utopia and the political, as well as questions about the practical-political value of Utopian thinking and the identification between Socialism and Utopia, very much continues to be an unresolved topic.

Jameson seems to (selectively) confine the range of Utopias to the “Leftist” varieties. But Utopia should not be monopolized by Socialism or by any other ideology. If Utopia is any form of “ideal-state” which has not yet emerged, then the term “Utopia” is an empty shell which could be filled with an opulent repertoire of imagined societies. Hence, the range of Utopias is infinite: from feudalism to futurism, from absolutism to anarchism, from clericalism to libertinism, etc.

Paradoxically, according to Jameson, the increasing inability to imagine a different future enhances rather than diminishes the appeal and also the function of Utopia. As he sees it, the very political weakness of Utopia in previous generations – no account of agency, nor a coherent historical and practical-political picture of transition – now becomes strength in a situation in which neither of these problems seems to offer candidates for solution. Most interestingly for our ecological purpose, is that Jameson suggests developing an Angst about losing the future which is analogous to Orwell’s anxiety about the loss of the past and of memory and childhood.

This would be a good deal more intense than the usual rhetoric about “our children” (keeping the environment clean for future generations, not burdening them with debt, etc.); it would be a fear that locates the loss of the future, of history itself, within the existential dimension of time and indeed within ourselves.

The Angst about losing the future might be a point of departure, but how to proceed from there to something tangible? Gopal Balakhrisnan’s advice is: “To be politically effective, one must take stock of the remorseless realities of this [world], without recourse to theoretical ecstasy”.

Those utopians that do not ruminate on this message before they enter the great outdoors, run the risk of being beset by a veritable catalogue of disasters at worst.  But in a time when ecological impasse looms, the opposite  – the inability to imagine another world beyond the horizon of status quo – might even be more dangerous.  “What is to be done” first and foremost is to imagine other possible worlds. From the latter we could deduce “what we can hope for” through the tool of utopistics. Practical and concrete measures come thereafter: like what kind of strategies should be pursued if an ecopolitical transition is to be secured? For instance, would the solution be a partial withdrawal from the world by a “creative minority”, while the fallacies of the political status quo are simultaneously pushed to their ultimate conclusion?

Answers are not provided here, but such a strategy implies risk, but so do most other strategies in this regard as well. A quote by Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1521) – who has often been regarded as the quintessential connoisseur of political intrigue – is of utopistic value:

“Fortune provided the matter, but they [Moses, Cyrus, Romulus and Theseus] gave it its form; without opportunity, their prowess would have been extinguished, and without such prowess the opportunity would have come in vain”.

– Machiavelli (1513) –

An ecological predicament would be a potential opportunity, but also a potentially insurmountable abyss. The prowess would be an equilibrium between utopistic sensibility/imagination and practical skills which take stock of the remorseless realities of  the world.


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