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What does this text suggest for thinking about and responding to the COVID-19 disaster?

Friday, May 1, 2020 - 3:50am

The political and economic fallout that has emerged with the COVID-19 pandemic fits the criteria of events that Mann and Wainwright specify as likely to engender the planetary Leviathan: “Processes are more likely to drive the creation of Leviathan if [a] they present an existential threat; [b] they are large scale (global); and [c] they pose challenges for the existing political order” (2018., 142). However, the history enfolding before our eyes doesn’t look like the birth of a new global sovereignty. Given that nothing close to either a Leviathan or Climate X alternative to the nation-state presented itself, citizens are left with no choice than but to rely on adapting extant public institutions, infrastructures, and state directives. At the national level, the US government responded by blaming the symbol of global public health, the World Health Organization, among its other political rivals, China and Iran. This is in keeping with the “Western” world’s tactic of pointing the carbon-emission finger elsewhere as well:

“Unfortunately, in discussions of climate politics, China is usually considered only a problem, an amoral polluter. How often are we in North America or western Europe told our efforts to slow climate change are meaningless because whatever ‘good’ we do, ‘China’ will ultimately render it futile? Sometimes this is a product of ignorance, sometimes of racist Eurocentrism, sometimes both” (Wainwright and Mann 2018, 116).

Both the Chinese and Iranian governments have returned condemnations along with supporting conspiracies. Thus, rather than leviathan, we seem to be witnessing a Behemoth scenario in which “one or more of these competing powers will continue to compete with the United States” (Wainwright and Mann 2018, 143). And perhaps we should take heed the warning that “History would seem to suggest this will lead to war, and it may well” (2018, 143). Currently these Behemoth-like counter hegemonies are merely struggling to win a rhetorical war of self-righteousness and self-preservation. What is uncertain is whether or not these responses to COVID-19 are indicative of a schismogenetic pattern developing in the contemporary geopolitical order. As Wainwright and Mann comment:

“The implication is that the management of the planet would unfold in the context of a world system that is neither democratic (since the vast majority of nation-states and peoples would have no real involvement in the important decisions about the Earth’s management) nor clearly dominated by one hegemonic power. Planetary governance would unroll on a lumpy, conflictual geopolitical terrain upon which elites continue to seek “adaptations” that meet their needs—political stability, continued accumulation, and so on” (2018, 143).

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What does this text suggest for thinking about toxicity?

Friday, May 1, 2020 - 3:48am

Climate Leviathan is largely a critical discussion of various ways of envisioning and organizing the Macro level including sovereignty, the nation-state, capitalisms, geopolitics, the world system, geo-engineering, etc. However, by rooting the discussion in “the political,” besides the obvious recognition of carbon emissions (and a few others) as toxic, the primary toxin discussed in this text is all the way down at the Nano level of ideology. The main problem isn’t fossil fuels, our dependency on them, or the corruption of the politicians in their pockets, it is in our incapacity to recognize how the tools we resort to (capitalism and the nation-state) are fully incapable of addressing the problem at hand. Indeed, they argue that addressing climate change without a critical theory of both capitalism and the state “would be like trying to model hurricanes without a theory of thermodynamics or an understanding of the effects of changing ocean temperatures on cyclone dynamics” (2018, 66).

Their “cure” to ideology is a Gramscian strain of absolute historicism. Take for example their discussion of progress. They quote Gramsci:

“‘…progress has been a democratic ideology.’ … [However] Progress has lost its democratic aspect because ‘the official ‘standard bearers’ of progress’ (the bourgeoisie) have ‘brought into being in the present destructive forces like crises and unemployment, etc., every bit as dangerous and terrifying as those of the past,’ and it is clear that these forces are as much a result of ‘progress’ as technology and scientific knowledge.” (2018, 94).

In this discussion, progress transforms from ideological tonic to ideological toxin based upon its associated deployments within a new historical context. Under the rule of monarchy, the ideology of progress enabled the establishment of liberal democracies. But under liberal capitalism, this ideology underwrote the “production of a separation in the social world between the political and the rest and a consequent neutralizing onslaught on the political that attempts to proceduralize and depoliticize domination, that is, the continual production of freedom for some and unfreedom for others” (2018, 83). These facts notwithstanding, the authors do not recommend an outright denial of progress: “A blanket rejection of progress confuses the idea and its standard bearers, who are now in fact part of the ‘natural order’ in crisis” (2018, 95). The same goes for the current stand-in for the ideology of progress, adaptation: “adaptation is becoming the “progress” of our time. Adaptation is to the ideology of Climate Leviathan what progress was to bourgeois liberalism in the nineteenth century” (2018, 95). Which, once again, does not mean we are to get rid of the concept of adaptation “as if a revolutionary social movement for climate justice can somehow decide against adaptation. The question, rather, is how—how to reshape a conception of the political in a very hot world.” (2018, 95).

What this discussion suggests is that it is that toxicity, as it pertains to ideology and social structure, is not a simple binary relation. To argue this would amount to “blanket rejection” of the ideology of progress as toxic to democracy. Rather, the authors’ example demonstrates how toxicity entails a triadic relation to a relation. It is how the ideology of progress relates to the historically evolving relationship between the dominant and the dominated that determines whether or not the ideology of progress is toxic to democracy or not.

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What does this text suggest for thinking about and responding to Quotidian Anthropocenes?

Friday, May 1, 2020 - 12:21am

The authors recognize and relate the critique of the Anthropocene to their critique of both capitalism and sovereignty. “One way or another, however reluctantly, the logic of capital in the Anthropocene points toward planetary sovereignty.” (2018, 122). Later on they remark that “the Anthropocene, the era that now puts all humans on the same geological age” ignores the fact that the “world’s peoples live in a multitude of geo-ecological times despite our planetary ‘simultaneity,’ and the forces that have helped shape those worlds are not reducible to ‘humanity’ in general, but to particular natural-historical social formations.” (2018, 174).

            Crucially, however, Mann and Wainwright do not disagree with the other central claim embedded in the concept of the Anthropocene, the appreciation of social impacts on what are otherwise considered natural or “non-human” systems. Indeed, they pull in Gramsci’s problematization of social and natural history to argue that “‘nature’ and ‘society’ are inseparable, active relations. And these relations are themselves inextricable from the processes through which we forge critical conceptions of the world” (2018, 91).

This picture of the Anthropocene closely aligns with perspective outlined by Elinoff and Vaughan in their discussion of Quotidian Anthropocenes (forthcoming), and reinforces both the analytic and political purchase of ethnographic investigations into the unique cultural and political struggles to respond to the particular configurations of anthropocenics that characterize discrete locales. Such investigations not only problematize top-down or one-size-fits-all policies of climate protection or adaptation, but they also appreciate the potential for keen political insight to develop “organically” (in Gramsci’s sense of the term) in the social formations springing up around local issues.

And, while recognizing a potential disciplinary bias, I believe these insights point to method for answering one of Mann and Wainwright’s questions: “A key question, then, is what the focus of a critical reconstruction of our conception of the world should be. What are the essential common senses we must undo to see the future for which we must struggle?” The focus that I would propose entails ethnographic engagements with place, but ones that are both and simultaneously multi-sited and multi-sighted (Marcus 1995).

Wainwright and Mann are astute macro-political theorists but they seem less reflexive and critical of the way in which they scale their politics.

What is obviously necessary is a means of governance that is not beholden to modern state sovereignty, at the same time that this necessity is denied by some of those very sovereign states. … The scale of the problems is so great, it seems impossible to confront them without the state, but it seems just as impossible that the state as currently constituted is going to get the job done. We face a situation in which there is, under current geopolitical and geoeconomic arrangements, no right answer” (2018, 119-120).

The experimental promise of Anthropology as Cultural Critique (Marcus and Fischer 1986) lay in the innovative solutions that were being generated in response to the problem of keeping the world system of political economy in the same analytical frame as the cultural and symbolic systems that were unique to the researcher’s object of study (see also Fortun 2003, 2009). In sum, multi-sited fieldwork, enabled through complex objects of study and creative research designs, presents the opportunity to perturb our commonsense politics of scale. And, at another level, collaborations across research projects enables further appreciation of “how to reshape a conception of the political in a very hot [polluted, disease-ridden, etc.] world” (Wainwright and Mann 2018, 95).

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When and where was this text published? What intellectual-discursive | socio-cultural | political-economic currents provoked and shaped its writing?

Tuesday, April 28, 2020 - 10:23pm

Climate Leviathan was published as a book by Verso in 2018.  It was preceded by an article-length version published in Antipode in 2012. The authors began to formulate their thinking  about Climate Leviathan in conversation after the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009, feeling compelled to provide a political analysis of the meeting process and the lackluster position taken by the newly elected and supposedly progressive Obama administration. Both of the authors were involved in local environmental organizations in their hometowns and were expressing their hesitations about the political horizons of the IPCC. However, they did not feel as if they had things completely worked out. This led to a discussion of these horizons that turned into the Climate Leviathan article. In writing the article, the authors realized that the topic at hand far exceeded the scope of one article. They thus continued the collaboration and began writing the book.

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Where and how has this text been referenced or discussed?

Tuesday, April 28, 2020 - 10:22pm

Dominic Boyer and Cymene Howe discussed the book with the authors in episode 172 of their “Cultures of Energy” podcast on April 10, 2019. Listen to the episode here.

The book was also reviewed in The Nation and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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What quotes from this text are exemplary or particularly evocative?

Tuesday, April 28, 2020 - 10:21pm

“Our accounts of each potential path for climate politics are not detailed forecasts of the empirical form they might take in any particular geography, but descriptions of the principal features we argue are likely to determine their general dynamics, and the political implications of those dynamics for attempts to construct a world of climate justice” (Mann and Wainwright 2018, 82).

“If capitalist Climate Leviathan stands ready to embrace carbon governance in an evolving Euro-American liberal hegemony, Climate Mao expresses the necessity of a just terror in the interests of the future of the collective, which is to say that it represents the necessity of a planetary sovereign but wields this power against capital” (Mann and Wainwright 2018, 106).

“Climate Behemoth, represented by the upper right of Figure 2.1. Behemoth opposes Leviathan’s drive for planetary sovereignty, which is itself not a bad thing in our view” (Mann and Wainwright 2018, 118).

“In the capitalist core—particularly where the fossil energy sector is large (the United States, Canada, Australia)—they have found their most willing allies among those segments of the proletariat that perceive climate change not only as a threat to their jobs and cheap energy, but also as a sophisticated means to empower elite experts and hinder the exercise of national(ist) sovereignty” (Mann and Wainwright 2018, 120).

“To put it in our terms, Behemoth hates Mao for its faith in secular revolution, Leviathan for its liberal pretension to rational world government, and both for their willingness to sacrifice “liberty” for lower carbon emissions” (Mann and Wainwright 2018, 123).

“To the extent that US hegemony will continue to require affordable fossil fuels, the emergence of Leviathan poses threat enough to energize Behemoth and thus to check Leviathan’s planetary potential—for now. But barring an act of coordinated political imagination of which it seems incapable, this situation is unlikely to last. Indeed, notwithstanding the Trump presidency, the United States could yet become the heart of Leviathan” (Mann and Wainwright 2018, 125).

“The situation changes dramatically when we shift to Working Group III, on mitigation. The future of mitigation is fundamentally a question of political economy, but the IPCC does not, or perhaps cannot, draw upon work that presents a critical model of capitalism. This causes a fundamental analytical problem. It would be like trying to model hurricanes without a theory of thermodynamics or an understanding of the effects of changing ocean temperatures on cyclone dynamics” (Mann and Wainwright 2018, 124).

“If Timothy Mitchell is right that “the political machinery that emerged to govern the age of fossil fuels may be incapable of addressing the events that will end it,” what will follow? This is a question—the question of the political—to which the prevailing conception of adaptation is wholly inadequate. We must, therefore, look elsewhere” (Mann and Wainwright 2018, 146).

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What is the main argument, narrative and effect of this text? What evidence and examples support these?

Tuesday, April 28, 2020 - 10:20pm

In Climate Leviathan, Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright speculate about the future “in a serious way,” drawing on a wide range of theory to sketch four possible governance scenarios, experimenting with scenarios as a genre for critical political thought. The authors assume that the governments and societies of the world will fail to mobilize fast enough to mitigate climate change, resulting in numerous and massive social, political economic, and cultural disruptions. They then analyze contemporary geopolitical trends in order to generate four different modes of governance that might take hold, at a global level, in order to respond and manage that state of affairs.

The scenario they deem most likely, which they call “Climate Leviathan,” imagines the rise of a global sovereignty that addresses and manages climate change through some form of liberal capitalism. The emergence of this sovereignty, however, is contingent on Climate Leviathan winning out over two antagonistic ideologies and governance forms. One, “Climate Behemoth,” is described as a reactionary and national-capitalistic resistance to the Leviathan’s global hegemony and appeal to rational governance. “Climate Mao,” by contrast, is an anti-capitalist but autocratic counter-hegemony. Finally, the authors also pose “Climate X,” named after Walter Benjamin’s Thesis X (in Theses on the Concept of History) depicted as an anti-capitalist, anti-sovereign alternative to the former three.

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What are the author/s’ institutional and disciplinary positions, intellectual backgrounds and scholarly scope?

Tuesday, April 28, 2020 - 10:19pm

The authors are both critical geographers of capitalism that focus on the intersection of sovereignty and economic and ecological crisis.

Geoff Mann is a Professor of Geography at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He received his PhD in Geography from UC Berkley. Joel Wainwright is a Professor of Geography at Ohio State University. He received his PhD in Geography from University of Minnesota.

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How should this text be cited? What is notable about the place or time of its publication? What related texts have been published in the same journal, book or book series?

Tuesday, April 28, 2020 - 10:18pm

Cite As:

Wainwright, Joel, and Geoff Mann. 2018. Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future. London ; New York: Verso.

Verso considers itself a publisher of the New Left. They publish works of critical theory with influences from Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, and postmodernism as well as re-publish prominent and classic works that fall within these domains.

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