On Britain’s imperial decline, Gramscian geography, Catalan cryptos, monarchical Brazil and Hungarian state consolidation.
Mark’s last book, The Weird & The Eerie, as its title suggests, is split into two parts: the weird is first, followed by the eerie, but each is nonetheless entangled with the other.
Mark writes, early on:
The allure that the weird and the eerie possess is not captured by the idea that we “enjoy what scares us”. It has, rather, to do with a fascination for the outside, for that which lies beyond standard perception, cognition and experience.
Here at least, both concepts are anchored in their literary origins, but this is not where they have to remain.
From the first introductory chapter, the political subtext of this allure is always present, just beneath the surface, signifying a subtle change in Mark’s thought in which he sidesteps his well-known fascination with “lost futures” and instead stakes out an occupation with “the new”.
Previously, on his kpunk blog, and also in his second book, Ghosts of my Life, Mark makes it quite clear that music is the most advantageous battleground on which the argument for the existence of capitalist realism could be fought. In Ghosts of my Life in particular, he writes extensively on music.
Music is, in itself, a temporal medium — it is inherently “progressive” in a very literal sense, since most tracks begin and end. However, our music cultures themselves, it seems, are stuck in a groove. The record of history is skipping and the cultural and political progressions we once took for granted seem to have slowed to a full stop. The futures we were promised have not materialised and music, perhaps more so than our visual mediums, has made the gap between promise and reality all too apparent.
And yet, in The Weird & The Eerie, Mark writes not of what we have “lost” but the new in which we encounter that which disturbs us:
The sense of wrongness associated with the weird — the conviction that this does not belong — is often a sign that we are in the presence of the new. The weird here is a signal that the concepts and frameworks which we have previously employed are now obsolete.
There are no lost futures here; no ghosts of options which no longer exist. If we can describe the limbo of our lost futures as a rupturing of the temporal, the new instead ruptures the ontological — the two are inherently related, of course, but it is worth noting their difference for the more specific potentials that each unleashes. For starters, whilst the idea of a lost future is recursively graspable — we can only properly make sense of that which has become obsolete — with the new we find ourselves within that which is radically immanent. Jarringly so. We encounter something towards which all our past experiences are obsolete and which alerts us to the contingency and fallibility of the present, the now. In this mode, the inside is not sufficient enough for the outside, rather than vice versa. It requires the outside be folded in and synthesised.
In its very wrongness, the weird uncovers an oversaturated present, in which there is no space for the weird itself (or an experience of the weird). Recursion after recursion: the weird is weird in itself.
Whilst this may seem like a new direction for Mark, instead it harks back to his PhD thesis, Flatline Constructs, and his love of Spinoza. (As an aside, let us not forget that this is — and, astoundingly, remains — the allure of jungle: that music genre which was so influential for the Ccru.) At one point, Mark, summarising the stakes of the theory of Gothic Materialism that is central to his thesis, writes: “While antropo-Marxism still posits a transcendent and authentic human agent which could overcome capital, Gothic Materialism takes it for granted that real materialism must involve total immanentization; one of its chief resources, therefore, is the philosopher whose whole work was devoted to developing a rigorously immanent account of agency: Spinoza.”
For Mark, Spinoza is an exemplary weird and eerie thinker. He continues: “For Spinoza, there is agency everywhere but this never belongs to human subjects.” What Spinoza does, according to Mark, is he “entifies” — form and function are irrelevant, entities are rather processes. Everything is governed by such processes and so, for Spinoza, this is his way of thinking God as/in nature.
This lends itself all too easily to the Frankensteining of matter and material. If Spinoza is an atheistic materialist, as many of his critics claimed, Mark seems to suggest that it is in a way that is more twisted than those critics dared imagine, even more so today when we consider that what Spinoza saw as ‘God, nature’ has undergone an intensive period of expansion and extension.
Spinoza was a regular feature on kpunk thanks to his wide-ranging influence on many of Mark’s favourite thinkers. Mark would later write that Spinoza “took for granted what would later become the first principle of Marx’s thought — that it was more important to change the world than to interpret it”. He continues:
[Spinoza’s] project of systematically rooting out the underlying motivation for irrational behaviours was effectively psychoanalysis three hundred years early. Freud, whose written acknowledgements to Spinoza were few, nevertheless admitted in his correspondence to being thoroughly indebted to Spinoza’s framework; Lacan was more explicit in his homage, comparing his own excommunication from Psychoanalysis to Spinoza’s banishment from the Amsterdam Synagogue. Deleuze’s thought is unimaginable without Spinoza.
This trajectory is most telling when considering Mark’s thought. In this way, Spinoza lingers in the background of all that Mark writes. Deleuze’s Spinozism, in particular, is central for him in this context.
In Flatline Constructs, Mark summarises the above penchant for Spinozic entifying, with all the impetus on processes, with a quote from Deleuze: “True entities are events.” And yet, as Deleuze continues: “It’s not easy to think in terms of the event.” The weird, like the Gothic for Y2k Mark, is perhaps one such way of making this thought more accessible.
What Deleuze is pointing to here — at least in relation to those arguments found in Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense — is that the “life” of the self is less an enclosed Cartesian cogito and more like some thing which is open to the intensities of all that is around it. Being, itself an intensity, passes through “beings”. As Mark puts it, with inverted commas undermining the deceptively holistic nature of linguistically expressed subjectivity, “‘we’ ‘ourselves’ are caught up in the rhythms, pulsions and patternings of non-human forces.”
“We” “ourselves” are not only “caught” — in fact, we dissolve into flows. Indistinguishable.
Mark continues, in Flatline Constructs, by talking about Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of haecceity, referring to “non-subjectified individuation”. Through the concept of haecceity, we can think of entities as events without making entities subjects. For Mark, it seems, this includes processes of non-subjectifying and de-subjectifying.
The Gothic has an affinity with the concept of the haecceity because it refuses to distinguish human figures from their backgrounds … You can’t enter such zones without entering into composition with them.
It is the immanence of the human to forces, the human as an arrangement of forces in itself, which causes Mark to write of Spinoza’s “psychedelic reason”:
Hey kids: could there be a better reason to read Spinoza? He tells you not to get out of your head but how to get out through your head.
But, ever recursive in our immanence, how do we wrap our heads around this? How do we think of this form of agency without anthropomorphising it, separating it, and reducing its power? How do we think the event without trapping its agency in the anthropotemporal? How do you get out through your head without giving your head an unnecessarily Cartesian level of credit?
We can think of the weird and the eerie, in their literary modes, are qualities of events which allow us to retain a certain distance from these problems of thought which philosophy cannot help but ontologise. The benefit of this deontologising manoeuvre for political thinking is only hinted at by Mark in one instance when he writes that capital “is, at every level, an eerie entity: conjured out of nothing, capital nevertheless exerts more influence than any allegedly substantial entity.”
Perhaps the weird and the eerie, and our acknowledgement of their presence(-as-absence) within capitalism, can allow us to interrogate capital anew? At the very least it reveals to us just how susceptible we are to dissolution by capital’s flows.
All that is solid melts into air, etc.
Before we continue, what we first require is a clarification of the difference between the weird and the eerie — although this is by no means an easy task. If the weird is dependent on a Spinozic immanence, what is the eerie in relation to it? Mark’s concepts are, of course, a challenge to Freud’s often misused and misunderstood unheimlich.
Freud’s unheimlich signals a closed reading of multiplicity, forcing childhood experiences of self consolidation down the cul-de-sac of castration anxiety. By introducing a distinction where (you could argue) there is none, Mark injects multiplicity back into where it has long been absent from. The two words shadow each other; haunt each other.
The eerie, for Mark, it soon becomes apparent, is more explicitly concerned with notions of agency. The weird, we could say, is the jarring experience of the new, “a glitch in the Matrix”, for instance. The eerie is rather a sensation, like the sensation of being watched. (We can also argue, however, that the weird can also be a sensation in the form of deja vu, but this is perceptive rather than agentic.) Each concept is an expression for a whole entanglement of intensities, making complex and two-dimensional that which Freud flattened into the uncanny, the unhomely.
(Perhaps — although this is probably something to be further explored at another time — we can think of the weird as indexical whilst the eerie is causal, along the blurred lines of the thing-in-itself and the noumena…?)
If we return to the weird’s deontologising nature, just as Mark saw music as the most accessible way to think the affects of capitalist realism, sound remains the easiest (but also weirdest) way to consider the eerie.
Mark writes, entangling the eerie with the more accurate translation of the unheimlich as the unhomely:
A sense of the eerie seldom clings to enclosed and inhabited domestic spaces; we find the eerie more readily in landscapes partially emptied of the human. What happened to reproduce these ruins, this disappearance? What kind of entity was involved? What kind of thing was it that emitted such an eerie cry?
In discussing this passage during our Weird & Eerie reading group, I was reminded of an experience I had as a teenager, taking my camera for a walk and having a cheeky cigarette in the fields close to the family home.
Walking across a muddy field in pitch blackness, I heard a terrifying sound like nothing I had ever heard before. A scream which quite literally curdled my blood. It made me feel ill. At first I feared the worst: that somewhere, in this darkness, someone was being attacked, unseen and unheard by all but me.
But there was something wholly inhuman about this sound and it wasn’t until I had run home and told my Dad about what had happened that I learned this scream most likely belonged to a vixen.
A vixen’s scream is perhaps the perfect example of an eerie cry. (An extensive section of my notes following this story comes very recognisably from Kodwo Eshun.)
In my experience, this disembodied howl ruptured the event of my experience. It created its own world, the edges and contours of which were undefinable. It dislocated my own capacity to world in the process of listening.
It was a cry which came from a thing, a thing with a body, for sure, but a body which I could not describe with any confidence. It was a cry that overcame its own potential categorisation. Kodwo called it a “vocalic body”: the acousmatic cry creates a “body” which overcomes the body of the fox itself, he said.
This is what Mark would call a “force”.
Sound additionally compounds the eerie in other ways. We spoke previously of how one of the most common sensations associated with the eerie is the sensation of being watched. What about the sensation of being listened to? And being listened to by what?
We can relate this to “our” “selves” through an experience we are all probably familiar with to some degree: the experience of hearing ourselves outside ourselves, i.e. the alien sensation of hearing and failing to recognise a recording of your own voice. We can note, in this instance, that how we normally hear our own voices is haptic. They are not transmitted to us through space, but through our bones. Our recorded selves emanate from a whole other body.
The sensation of the vocalic body can then lead us to ask: How does sound hear us? What do we gain from an understanding of ourselves in the ear of an entity? How do we hear ourselves as something hears us? Hearing, as opposed to seeing, is much harder to imagine. It’s weirder.
What if we are nothing but a crack or a cry. A crack caught up in a pulsion. A cry caught up in a rhythm.
In Flatline Constructs, Mark was to highlight the perfect fictional example of this, found in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
The painting showed a hairless, oppressed creature with a head like an inverted pear, its hands clapped in horror to its ears, its mouth open in a vast, soundless scream. Twisted ripples of the creature’s torment, echoes of its cry, flooded out into the air surrounding it; the man or woman, whichever it was, had become contained by its own howl. It had covered its ears against its own sound. The creature stood on a bridge and no one else was present; the creature screamed in isolation. Cut off by — or despite — its outcry. “He did a woodcut of this,” Rick said, reading the card tacked below the painting. “I think,” Phil Resch said, “that this is how an andy must feel.” He traced in the air the convolutions, visible in the picture, of the creature’s cry.”
What is Dick doing, in describing Munch’s most famous painting, The Scream, this vision of the horror of Spinozic immanence, in relation to the specific experience of an “andy”, an android?
If we can identify Munch’s misshapen painting as an image of a vocalic body, what does this say about the way an android would feel? Mark, in Flatline Constructs, writes of media — via Mcluhan and Baudrillard — as an extension of the human body. What becomes of the subjective body and the vocalic body in moments of non-human haecceity? Is this a becoming-weird? A becoming-eerie?
Mark ends the introduction to his book with a more focused exposition of the eerie in particular:
The perspective of the eerie can give us access to the forces which govern mundane reality but which are ordinarily obscured, just as it can give us access to spaces beyond mundane reality altogether. It is this release from the mundane, this escape from the confines of what is ordinarily taken for reality, which goes some way to account for the peculiar appeal that the eerie possesses.
In the next posts in this series, I’d like to consider, through Mark’s own examples, what the rapturous potentials of a becoming-eerie have to do with Acid Communism specifically.
What I hope is clear by now, specifically in our discussion of Mark’s problematising of Freud, is that his deontologising of certain processes aids in the necessary disruption of self consolidation — the self that is consolidated by capitalist society. In this way, Mark’s recuperation of multiplicity is a form of schizoanalysis, but how might this be further put to use to change our world politically?
Some of you may have already picked up on connections between the disruption of self consolidation and the state consolidation antithetical to patchwork. We’ll consider a schizoanalytic patchwork later but first I’d like to write more about desire.
It is desire, as eerie a force as capital itself, that will be our ladder between Mark’s last and unfinished next book.
To be continued…
I thought it might be useful, for both myself and others, if I tried to field some patchwork questions, many of which warrant answers longer and more rigorous than CuriousCat is really tailored for.
I’m going to pin this to the sidebar and add to it over time. All of these questions, unless otherwise stated, were sent in via CuriousCat. If you have questions of your own, feel free to click there and do the same.
In response, they linked to my ‘State Decay‘ post — which was nice to see: thank you — but I realised, reading it back, now with the benefit of hindsight, that that post begins very much in the deep end. The theory was given a very quick once-over and then we dove right into what I recently described as “the eye of the storm” of patchwork — which I see as the spiralling internal engine of populist Left and Right approaches to sorting difference — but that doesn’t say much about patchwork itself.
So, over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to write a Patchwork 101 post, going into the theory’s foundations in much more detail in order to clarify them against the oppressive legacy of Mencius Moldbug.
Xerosones recently beat me to it with the inaugural post on their blog providing “a minor introduction” to patchwork which is definitely worth a look at. The post makes it quite clear, however, that the general idea of patchwork has a very potted history and there are many different perspectives on it, many of which appear at odds with one another.
It’s not surprising, with all this in mind, that there has been some confusion over what we’ve all been talking about here recently. However, I’ve since realised that to write a post trying to consolidate all these branches is a sort of impossible task. Patchwork is itself already a patchwork. It is fragmentary by nature. This isn’t unusual for any kind of broad political thought, really, but in this case it is something to be emphasised and accelerated.
Patchwork nonetheless requires some clarification, or else it runs the risk of appearing to be some kind of “zero claim ideology”, as Reza has recently been calling u/acc on Facebook, so I thought it might help to give an overview of what patchwork is — specifically for me.
I want to do this as concisely as possible.
Firstly, mine is not a Moldbuggian patchwork. What I am trying to figure out for myself here is a theory of patchwork that is inherently anti-nationalist and decolonial. This may seem antithetical to considerations of Moldbug. He lingers for me only because his definitions of patchwork are the most clear but the idea in itself did not begin with him and it shouldn’t end with him either. His is only one point of view and it is counter-productive to read patchwork via one theory alone. Likewise, any pursuit of one perspective requires a consideration of its outside. Once you let the outside in there’s no telling when the resulting fragmentation will stop.
My view of patchwork, I have realised, is almost identical to my view of the Red Pill, as explored in my “Egress” post. I wrote:
… the “Red Pill” is not an inherently right-wing concept. […] The Red Pill allows the person who takes it to see the formation of the Matrix for what it is — a digital simulation — and initiates the taker’s egress. Neo, choosing the Red Pill and subsequently undergoing a course of intensive training, is additionally given the power to shape the Matrix at will. In this way, the Red Pill is a medium through which one can manipulate perception and desire, allowing for the direct “upload” of knowledge, objects and abilities through a neural interface—which all humans outside of the Matrix are now “born” (or rather, “grown”) with—and into the “hardware” of the human brain and its central nervous system. It is a psychedelic drug through which the real conditions of existence become not only available but immediately plastic, allowing for the interruption of the biological foundation of the Matrix that the machines have implanted into the collective consciousness of humanity enslaved.
At its heart, then, The Matrix is a cinematic fable of political and philosophical choices and its success can be attributed to its ability to dramatise abstract questions usually debated by political philosophy. With its narrative combination of drugs, Prometheanism […] and machinic enslavement, The Matrix could easily be read as an Acid Communist and (Left) Accelerationist parable. However, it is as if the right-wing monopolisation of the Red Pill requires that the left abandon its potentials…
I also do not see patchwork as an inherently right-wing concept. Just because certain subgenres of the Right have utilised it and successfully used it to map out its potentials for their desired forms of the good life does not mean the Left — or any other broad political affiliation for that matter — must abandon its potentials.
In fact, patchwork and the red pill may have more in common than first appearances suggest. Patchwork functions similarly to the red pill in that it is a giant suppository for leviathan, corroding processes of state consolidation and making the conditions of (geopolitical) space both available and plastic. They are tandem, interscalar concepts: one for the subject and one for the state. This interscalar relationship is what interests me most and that is why ‘State Decay’ remains the bedrock for what this blog has become in recent months.
The Promethean and technological overtones within the patchwork / red pill analogies, thanks to The Matrix, are also very important. Axxonnhorror has done well to summarise the implications of patchwork’s modern entanglement of geopolitics and tech, exploring how the resulting “connective disintegration” is not as alien to our current social realities as we might think:
‘Connective distintegration’ immediately makes me think of Cyberspace, with countless amounts of users and programs, delocalised from their immediate geographical standings, and functioning on a vast informational network, interconnected, yet disintegrated, operating in niches with filtered content, but capable of instantaneously moving on a trajectory linking many newer, foreign nodes.
Patchwork doesn’t delineate a rigid set of neighbours for each patch, but allows local structures to change internally and with respect to its outside: some patch might want to cluster next to some set of microstates, another time escaping them, or drifting out into the open smooth cosmos, alone, but perhaps connecting via the immense cyberspace, or even stranger vistas, to the others. Just like the individual subject — strange, not-fixed, mobile, “garnering here, there, and everywhere” through connections, but not integrations.
The Internet should and will play a central role in our considerations of the transformation of meatspace. We can see this aspect of patchwork informing a great deal of contemporary thought — most obviously, Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack. (I’m only just getting around to reading this so more on that in a future post I think.)
In an article on e-flux, Bratton writes:
My interest in the geopolitics of planetary-scale computation focuses less on issues of personal privacy and state surveillance than on how it distorts and deforms traditional Westphalian modes of political geography, jurisdiction, and sovereignty, and produces new territories in its image.
Patchwork, even in its Moldbuggian mode, shares these considerations. In his introductory post to patchwork, Moldbug (who, lest we forget, has a day job in Silicon Valley) draws further parallels between our understandings of off- and online space. This later definition is the only definition I would like to preserve in my thought from Moldbug’s.
The first lesson of Patchwork 101 is this:
[W]e can think of Patchwork as a new operating system for the world. Of course, it does not have to be installed across the entire world, although it is certainly designed to scale. But, it is easier and much more prudent to start small. Innovations in sovereignty are dangerous.
To be continued…
Whilst I was writing yesterday’s quick post on the demise of the nation state, as envisaged by The Guardian, the major story of the day hit which was that £50mil has apparently been funnelled into the creation of a new centrist party in the UK…
The suggestion was largely ridiculed along the same lines it usually is. It’s a suggestion that has come up very frequently over the last few years, particularly since Jeremy Corbyn took over the Labour leadership.
With a political landscape defined by polarisation, a cavern has opened up before us where a party of true centrists can sweep into power and save us from ourselves.
Tony Blair said it first, I think, longing for a return to the heyday of New Labour and later the Liberal Democrats believed that their time had finally come (again — and this time they wouldn’t fuck it up, they promise!)
Both failed to recognise that they were largely to blame for centrism’s disrepute, alongside the general principles in the first place being incredibly dumb. Centrism now seems to be synonymous with the denial of just about every political development of the last five years. But maybe not all of them…
This morning, I came across a brilliant satirical post by Richard Seymour that offers us a horrifying vision of what might happen if these centrist and fragmentational tendencies continue to proliferate despite each other.
For a fractal centre! For the diversity of the shopping centre! Let a thousand nearly identical flowers bloom! One, two, three, many new centrist parties!
This is a dystopian sci-fi novel I would read and this is part of the reason why any recognition of our present moment demands far more political imagination than is currently being offered to us by establishment politics, economics and the media.
Ed’s latest post, “(Anti)Markets“, expands on this brilliantly, describing the internal engine of a paradox like Seymour’s.
Perhaps the best way to look at the global system that is now in crisis is by returning to Deleuze and Guattari’s analysis of shifting modes of social organization around the mechanisms of warding off the forces that would undo them. […] The capitalist state finds itself in a paradoxical situation: it is founded atop capital’s flows, but it still must ward off their ultimate – and inevitable – trajectory, that is, the acceleration into absolute deterritorialization.
Seymour’s horrifically banal vision is a wonderful case in point. Patchwork is no less at risk of capture than any other idea, product, people, etc.
To continue to tease and break apart my promised “Patchwork 101” post, this is a large part of my problem with Moldbug’s insistence on framing patchwork in terms of corporate business models. Sovcorps are an interesting idea and worthy of consideration if only because they’re frighteningly easy to imagine but we do not have to remain wedded to this business analogy forever — even Moldbug himself adapts it to fit his own preferences, referring to it as “a modified version of monarchy.”
A royal family is to an ordinary family business as a Patchwork realm is to an ordinary, non sovereign, public corporation. Joint-stock realms thus solve the primary historical problem of monarchical government: the vagaries of the biological process.
But if this business model is so adaptable to Moldbug’s preferences, why speak in terms of business at all? Moldbug makes clear that there has been no precedent for anything quite like a sovereign joint-stock company in world history. His various analogies all seem like near-fits.
It is only in this way, in terms of aiding our imaginations, that the business analogy is helpful. It allows us to describe processes of state dissolution in ways that are both familiar and entirely other to the current status quo. I have said previously that I believe patchwork to be an “eerie politic” in this way, invoking Fisher’s “eerie”, but in Moldbug’s specific imagining it is also perhaps like another concept of Mark’s taken to an extreme.
Mark says that “Business Ontology” is
the idea that everything is folded inside a business reality system, that the only goals and purposes which count are those that are translatable into business terms. The problem is that Business Ontology has no place for anything like ‘the public’. It’s time to reinvent the concept of the public and also for workers in public services to start to drive out business interests and business methods. Up until the credit crisis, we bought the idea that business people somehow have a better handle on reality than the rest of us can muster. But, after the credit crisis, that’s no longer tenable. And as I say in [Capitalist Realism], if businesses can’t be run as businesses, why should public services?
In a twisted sort of way, these are the potentials that are already inherent to Moldbug’s theory itself. Patchwork in this way completely transforms our conception of “the public” — albeit negatively by most leftist standards but it nevertheless provides an exit / egress from that which is.
However, we should note that the business model framework is similarly useful only because businesses are constantly changing entities. We live in an era where our industries — particularly our cultural industries — are in a constant state of flux. Even our relationships to businesses through labour are said to be on the cusp of potentially radical change.
I would hope that a “post-work” society, for instance, is not just the homogenisation of politics, finance and labour into a seamless whole, in which labour becomes indistinguishable from being. (Tolerable Funeral‘s inaugural post speaks to this, I think.)
Business competition, like political progressivism, also follows a tendency towards homogenisation — of buying out both failing and succeeding businesses in order to expand. Patchwork, at least how I see it, should reject this also.
The diversity of the shopping centre is a potential outcome and also perhaps the worst one imaginable.
After decades of globalisation, our political system has become obsolete – and spasms of resurgent nationalism are a sign of its irreversible decline.
Just as I was starting to enjoy my new reputation as a Twitter radical who makes people really angry, The Guardian publishes a long read on the demise of the nation state and unmasks me as the normie that I am…
Rana Dasgupta does a good job here of sketching out the current dilemma, both in Europe and around the world, particularly the contradictory tendencies of international state relations.
When we discuss “politics”, we refer to what goes on inside sovereign states; everything else is “foreign affairs” or “international relations” – even in this era of global financial and technological integration. We may buy the same products in every country of the world, we may all use Google and Facebook, but political life, curiously, is made of separate stuff and keeps the antique faith of borders.
Dasgupta goes on to point to “the loss of control over money flows” as the key catalyst in dissolving national borders, both physically and psychically.
Capital deterritorialises. We know this. What I don’t get is how the correct response is then to moralise these flows themselves, as if to say that if our nations were more morally robust, capital wouldn’t flow so waywardly…
(The position of this blog is that it’s irrelevant. Financiers suck because they follow these flows like cleaner fish, scavenging the rot, but moralising the rot itself is pointless.)
Without wanting to sound too smug about it, Dasgupta then rehearses many of the arguments described here in recent weeks, including how, since we don’t know anything else, the decline of “national political authority” feels like “the end of the world“.
Despite this, Dasgupta seems to fall into the very traps they describe. To let the idea of the nation state die is apparently to go backwards and embrace whatever we had “before”. Again, these are the same arguments we have seen being rehearsed ad nauseam about capitalism: it’s not working but to let it collapse is inherently to go backwards. This still feels like a sign of a populist left unable to give up the ghost of a naively universalist progressivism.
(To be clear, it’s universalism which is the problem here and its funneling progressivism into a single, unwavering straight line. Progressivism reveals itself to be political tunnelvision. When you’re political system starts to offer you the Kool Aid, progressivism becomes putting it down and heading for the exit. There are surely better paths on the outside.)
Mark used to say that the restlessness of capitalism is a result of a failed escape from feudalism — which is to say that there’s too much hangover for us to class it as a clean break — and the restless compositions of our nation states are surely related to this.
Even if we wanted to restore what we once had, that moment is gone. The reason the nation state was able to deliver what achievements it did – and in some places they were spectacular – was that there was, for much of the 20th century, an authentic “fit” between politics, economy and information, all of which were organised at a national scale. National governments possessed actual powers to manage modern economic and ideological energies, and to turn them towards human – sometimes almost utopian – ends. But that era is over. After so many decades of globalisation, economics and information have successfully grown beyond the authority of national governments. Today, the distribution of planetary wealth and resources is largely uncontested by any political mechanism.
But to acknowledge this is to acknowledge the end of politics itself. And if we continue to think the administrative system we inherited from our ancestors allows for no innovation, we condemn ourselves to a long period of dwindling political and moral hope. Half a century has been spent building the global system on which we all now depend, and it is here to stay. Without political innovation, global capital and technology will rule us without any kind of democratic consultation, as naturally and indubitably as the rising oceans.
There’s something interesting happening here.
In many ways I agree wholeheartedly with the above quote. The suggestion that politics as we know it is over and warrants innovation is absolutely correct but to limit politics to “democratic consultation” — i.e. politics as we know it — feels contradictory. The innovation needed is surely to allow for the free expression of extra-democratic dynamics.
Similarly, Dasgupta keeps insisting throughout the article on how the collapse of nation states is to do with our waning moral fibre. Our governments certainly do little to inspire confidence with their own blind faith in capitalism, upholding it at all costs, and their failure to handle the global refugee crisis is likewise a major issue more than worthy of criticism, but to generalise the moral fibre of our nations is surely the most boring and predictable response to the decline being described. We’ve heard that so many times before and generally, lest we forget, from the mouths of reactionaries and conservatives.
This trend continues throughout this Long Read. I agree with it consistently but it seems incapable of thinking the very limits it demands be thought.
That is how we will complete this globalisation of ours, which today stands dangerously unfinished. Its economic and technological systems are dazzling indeed, but in order for it to serve the human community, it must be subordinated to an equally spectacular political infrastructure, which we have not even begun to conceive.
Well, that last part is definitely not true…
It will be objected, inevitably, that any alternative to the nation-state system is a utopian impossibility. But even the technological accomplishments of the last few decades seemed implausible before they arrived, and there are good reasons to be suspicious of those incumbent authorities who tell us that human beings are incapable of similar grandeur in the political realm. In fact, there have been many moments in history when politics was suddenly expanded to a new, previously inconceivable scale – including the creation of the nation state itself. And – as is becoming clearer every day – the real delusion is the belief that things can carry on as they are.
I could keep quoting from this article at length but I won’t. I’d definitely recommend reading it as a pre-primer for Patchwork 101.
Dasgupta, unfortunately, isn’t thinking about alternatives but this article at least demonstrates why we should be.
Nevertheless, for Dasgupta, any future requires three things:
- global financial regulation
- global flexible democracy
- new conceptions of citizenship
I’m unconvinced by all three of these suggestions, since they simply continue the globalisation trend.
The homogenisation of finance, democracy and citizenry feels like a real failure of imagination considering the problems we are faced with. All this seems to advocate is the expansion of powers outwards to the global hubs — your EUs, your UNs — so that all the dissidence Dasgupta has pointed to can be subsumed within an even larger whole. (The equivalent of just buying a bigger carpet when you can’t brush any more dissent under the current one.)
Transnational flexibility and a rethinking of political identity are good inclusions but, unfortunately, they’re in the wrong package, and I don’t see a situation where these ideas don’t continue to eat the system we have from the inside out.