The Future as Sci Fi: A New Cold War
Slavoj Zizek

The contours of a new Cold War are thus appearing on the horizon – and, this time, it will be literally a conflict fought in very cold conditions. On August 2 2007, a Russian team planted a titanium capsule with a Russian flag under the ice caps of the North Pole. This assertion of the Russian claim to the Arctic region was done neither for scientific reasons nor as a political-propagandistic bravado. Its true goal was to secure for Russia the vast energy riches of the Arctic: according to today’s estimates, up to one quarter of the world’s untapped oil and gas sources may lie under the Artic Ocean. Russia’s claims are, predictably, opposed by four other countries whose territory borders on the Arctic region: USA, Canada, Norway and Denmark (through its sovereignty over Greenland).

While it is difficult to estimate the soundness of these predictions, one thing is sure: an extraordinary social and psychological change is taking place right in front of our eyes – the impossible is becoming possible. An event first experienced as impossible but not real (the prospect of a forthcoming catastrophe which, however probable we know it is, we do not believe it will effectively occur and thus dismiss it as impossible) becomes real but no longer impossible (once the catastrophe occurs, it is “renormalized,” perceived as part of the normal run of things, as always-already having been possible). The gap which makes these paradoxes possible is the one between knowledge and belief: we know the (ecological) catastrophe is possible, probable even, yet we do not believe it will really happen.

And is this not what is happening today, right in front of our eyes? A decade ago, the public debate on torture or the participation of the Neo-Fascist parties in a West European democratic government was dismissed as an ethical catastrophe which is impossible, which “really cannot happen”; once it happened, we immediately got accustomed to it, accepting it as obvious… Or, recall the infamous siege of Sarajevo from 1992 till 1995: the fact that a »normal« European city of half a million inhabitants will be encircled, starved, regularly bombed, its citizens terrorized by sniper fire, etc., and that this will go on for 3 years, would have been considered unimaginable before 1992 – it would have been extremely easy for the Western powers to break the siege and open a small safe corridor to the city. When the siege began, even the citizens of Sarajevo thought this is a short-term event, trying to send their children to safety »for a week or two, till this mess is over. “And then, very fast, the siege was “normalized…”

This same direct passage from impossibility to normalization is clearly discernible in how state powers and big capital relate to ecological threats like the ice meltdown on the poles. The very same politicians and managers who, till recently, dismissed the fears of global warming as apocalyptic scare-mongering of ex-Communists, or at least as premature conclusions based on insufficient evidence, assuring us that there is no reason for panic, that, basically, things will go on as usual, are now all of a sudden treating global warming as a simple fact, as part of the way things are “going on as usual”… In July 2008, CNN was repeatedly showing a report “The Greening of Greenland,” celebrating the new opportunities that the melting of ice offers to Greenlanders – they can already grow vegetables in the open land, etc. The obscenity of this report is not only that it focuses on the minor benefit of a global catastrophe; to add insult to injury, it plays on the double meaning of “green” in our public speech (“green” for vegetation; “green” for ecological concerns), so that the fact that more vegetation can grow on the Greenland soil because of the global warming is associated with the rising of ecological awareness… Are such phenomena not yet another example of how right Naomi Klein was when, in her Shock Doctrine, she described the way global capitalism exploits catastrophes (wars, political crises, natural disasters) to get rid of the “old” social constraints and impose its agenda on the slate cleared by the catastrophe? Perhaps, the forthcoming ecological disasters, far from undermining capitalism, will serve as its greatest boost.

What gets lost in this shift is the proper sense of what is going on, with all the unexpected traps the catastrophe hides. For example, one of the unpleasant paradoxes of our predicament is that the very attempts to counteract other ecological threats may contribute to the warming of the poles: the ozone hole helps shield the interior of the Antarctic from global warming, so if it will be healed, the Antarctic could quickly catch up with the warming of the rest of the Earth.

One thing at least is sure. In the last decades, it was fashionable to talk about the predominant role of “intellectual labor” in our postindustrial societies – however, materiality is now reasserting itself with a vengeance in all its aspects, from the forthcoming struggle for scarce resources (food, water, energy, minerals, food…) to environmental pollution.

So while we should definitely exploit the opportunities opened up by global warming, we should never forget that we are dealing with a tremendous social and natural catastrophe, and that these opportunities are the by-products of this catastrophe which we should fight with all our means. In adopting a “balanced view,” we act like those who plead for a more “balanced view” on Hitler: true, he killed millions in the camps, but he also abolished unemployment and inflation, built highways, made trains run on time… This new constellation provides the starting point for Dipesh Chakrabarty’s elaboration of the historico-philosophical consequences of the global warming, the main being the collapse of the distinction between human and natural histories:

“For it is no longer a question simply of man having an interactive relation with nature. This humans have always had /…/ Now it is being claimed that humans are a force of nature in the geological sense.”) (“The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry, Winter 2009)

That is to say, the fact that “humans – thanks to our numbers, the burning of fossil fuel, and other related activities – have become a geological agent on the planet”(209), means that they are able to affect the very balance of life on Earth, so that – “in itself” with the industrial revolution of 1750, “for itself” with global warming – a new geological era began, baptized by some scientists as “Anthropocene.” The way humankind is forced to perceive itself in these new conditions is as a species, as one of the species of life on earth. When the young Marx designated humanity as a “species being /Gattungswesen/,” he means something quite different: that, in contrast to animal species, only humans are a “species being,” i.e., a being which actively relates to itself as a species and is thus “universal” not only in itself, but also for itself. This universality first appears in its alienated-perverted form with capitalism, which connects and unites all of humanity within the same world market; with modern social and scientific development, we are no longer just a mere species among others or yet another natural condition. For the first time in the entire human history, we, humans, collectively constitute ourselves and are aware of it, so that we are also responsible for ourselves: the mode of our survival depends on the maturity of our collective reason… However, the scientists who talk about the Anthropocene ”are saying something quite the contrary. They argue that because humans constitute a particular kind of species they can, in the process of dominating other species, acquire the status of a geologic force. Humans, in other words, have become a natural condition, at lest today.”(214) The standard Marxist counter-argument is here that this shift from Pleistocene to the Anthropocene is entirely due to the explosive development of capitalism and its global impact – and this confronts us with the key question: how are we to think the link between the social history of the Capital and the much larger geologic changes of the conditions for life on the Earth?

“If the industrial way of life was what got us into this crisis, then the question is, why think in terms of species, surely a category that belongs to a much longer history? Why could not the narrative of capitalism – and hence its critique – be sufficient as a framework for interrogating the history of climate change and understanding its consequences? It seems true that the crisis of climate change has been necessitated by the high-energy-consuming model of society that capitalist industrialization has created and promoted, but the current crisis has brought into view certain other conditions for the existence of life in the human form that have no intrinsic connection to the logics of capitalist, nationalist, or socialist identities. They are connected rather to the history of life on this planet, the way different life-forms connect to one another, and the way the mass extinction of one species could spell danger for another. /…/ In other words, whatever our socioeconomic and technological choices, whatever the rights we wish to celebrate as our freedom, we cannot afford to destabilize conditions (such as the temperature zone in which the planet exists) that work like boundary parameters of human existence. These parameters are independent of capitalism or socialism. They have been stable for much longer than the histories of these institutions and have allowed human beings to become the dominant species on earth. Unfortunately, we have now ourselves become a geological agent disturbing these parametric conditions needed for our own existence.” (217-218)

In contrast to nuclear war which would have been the result of a conscious decision of a particular agent, climate change “is an unintended consequence of human action and shows, only through scientific analysis, the effects of our actions as a species.” (221) This threat to the very existence of humanity creates a new sense of “we” which truly encompasses all of humanity: “Climate change, refracted through global capital, will no doubt accentuate the logic of inequality that runs through the rule of capital; some people will no doubt gain temporarily at the expense of others. But the whole crisis cannot be reduced to a story of capitalism. Unlike in the crises of capitalism, there are no lifeboats here for the rich and the privileged (witness the drought in Australia or recent fires in the wealthy neighborhoods of California).” (221) The most appropriate name for this emerging universal subject may be species: “Species may indeed be the name of a placeholder for an emergent, new universal history of humans that flashes up in the moment of the danger that is climate change.” (221) The problem is that this universal is not a Hegelian one, which arises dialectically out of the movement of history and subsumes-mediates all particularities: it “escapes our capacity to experience the world” (222), so it can only give rise to a “negative universal history” (222), not the Hegelian world history as the gradual immanent self-deployment of freedom.

With the idea of humans as species, the universality of the humankind falls back into the particularity of an animal species: phenomena like global warming make us aware that, with all the universality of our theoretical and practical activity, we are at a certain basic level just another living species on the planet Earth. Our survival depends on certain natural parameters which we automatically take for granted. The lesson of the global warming is that the freedom of the humankind was possible only against the background of the stable natural parameters of the life on earth (temperature, the composition of the air, sufficient water and energy supply, etc.): humans can “do what they want” only insofar as they remain marginal enough, so that they don’t seriously perturb the parameters of the life on earth. The limitation of our freedom that becomes palpable with global warming is the paradoxical outcome of the very exponential growth of our freedom and power, i.e., of our growing ability to transform nature around us up to destabilizing the very basic geological parameters of the life on earth. “Nature” thereby literally becomes a socio-historical category, but not in the exalted young Lukacs sense (the content of what is for us (counts for us as) “nature” is always overdetermined by a historically-specified social totality which structures the transcendental horizon of our understanding of nature). It becomes a socio-historical category in the much more radical and literal (ontic) sense of something that is nit just a stable background of human activity, but is affected by it in its very basic components. What is thereby undermined is the basic distinction between nature and human history: nature blindly follows its course, it just has to be explained, while human history has to be understood. Even if its global course is out of control and functions as a Fate which goes against the wishes of most of the people, this “Fate” is the result of the complex interaction of many individual and collective projects and acts based upon certain understanding of what our world is – in history, we confront the result of our own endeavors.

Chakrabarty seems to miss here the full scope of the properly dialectical relationship between the basic geological parameters of the life on earth and the socio-economic dynamic of human development. Of course, the natural parameters of our environment are “independent of capitalism or socialism” – they are a threat to all of us, independently of economic development, political system, etc. However, the fact that their stability was threatened by the dynamic of global capitalism nonetheless has a stronger implication than the one allowed by Chakrabarty: in a way, we have to admit that the Whole is contained by its Part, i.e., that the fate of the Whole (life on earth) hinges on what goes on in what is formally one of its parts (socio-economic mode of production of one of the species on earth). This is why we have to accept the paradox that, in the relation between the universal antagonism (the threatened parameters of the conditions for life on earth) and the particular antagonism (the deadlock of capitalism), the key struggle is the particular one: one can solve the universal problem (of the survival of the human species) only by first resolving the particular deadlock of the capitalist mode of production. In other words, the common-sense reasoning which tells us that, independently of our class position or of our political orientation, we all will have to tackle the ecological crisis if we are to survive, is deeply misleading: the key of the ecological crisis does not reside in ecology as such.

Perhaps, the key to this limitation is Chakrabarty’s simplified notion of the Hegelian dialectics. That is to say, is the idea of a “negative universal history” really anti-Hegelian? Is, on the contrary, the idea that a multiplicity (of humans) totalized (brought together) through a negative external limit (a threat) not Hegelian par excellence? Even more, is not for Hegel every universality ultimately a “negative” one, in the precise sense that it has to appear as such, in its opposition (“negative relationship”) to its own particular-determinate content – recall Hegel’s theory of war. Hegel may appear to celebrate the prosaic character of life in a well-organized modern state where the heroic disturbances are overcome in the tranquillity of private rights and the security of the satisfaction of needs: private property is guaranteed, sexuality is restricted to marriage, future is safe… In this organic order, universality and particular interests appear reconciled: the “infinite right” of subjective singularity is given its due, individuals no longer experience the objective state order as a foreign power intruding onto their rights, they recognize in it the substance and frame of their very freedom. Gerard Lebrun asks here the fateful question: “Can the sentiment of the Universal be dissociated from this appeasement?” The answer is clear: yes, and this is why war is necessary – in war, universality reasserts its right against and over the concrete-organic appeasement in the prosaic social life. Is thus the necessity of war not the ultimate proof that, for Hegel, every social reconciliation is doomed to fail, that no organic social order can effectively contain the force of abstract-universal negativity? This is why social life is condemned to the “spurious infinity” of the eternal oscillation between stable civic life and wartime perturbations.

In other words, Chakrabarty’s dismissal of the Hegelian universality would only hold if we were to reduce what Hegel calls “concrete universality” to the organic-corporate model of a universal order within which every particular moment plays its determinate role, contributing to the wealth of the All. If, however, we bear in mind that the Hegelian “concrete universality” designates a universal which enters into a dialectical tension with its own particular content, i.e., that every universality can only assert (posit) itself “as such” in a negative way, then the idea of nature as not only the self-evident stable background of human activity, but as the unity of the invisible background of and apocalyptic threat to the human species, appears profoundly Hegelian.

2 Comments

  1. Posted March 3, 2010 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    As Zizek indicates, capitalism presents only an ‘alienated-perverted’ form of species-being. That is, the exact opposite of species-being, a monstrously “unspecified” or species-less being totally subsumed under the indifferent market-logic of universal equivalents, i.e. numismatic specie. Our true “species-being” is another name for Utopia, put otherwise. Zizek’s error is thus a premature reification or foreclosure of our historical labor of specification, our being-towards-species, i.e. the path of communist revolution.

  2. Joe
    Posted March 26, 2010 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Ah, but Alain, your fear is in fact as the very problem that Zizek is asking us to confront and surmount.

    That is, the “solution” (which you are anxious to protect) and that the US (ruling classes) are currently participating in (albeit haphazardly) is NOT a solution to the crisis at all.

    We thinking people of the world need to stop censoring and editing the truth of the present crisis in order to fit into the confines of what the ruling order considers to be “realistic.”

    The material reality of global climate crisis will trump the pseudo-reality of the political ideologists who are now running things.

    The naive “realistic” outlook that makes Zizek’s argument look odd or threatening is a part of what needs to be overgrown and overthrown.

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