What does this text suggest for thinking about toxicity?


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James Adams's picture
May 1, 2020

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.