What Will the State Look Like in an Era of Ecological Disaster?

What Will the State Look Like in an Era of Ecological Disaster?

States of Emergency

Imagining a politics for an age of accelerated climate change.


Climate change has been a political issue in America for almost my entire life—James Hansen first testified to the reality of global warming before the Senate in 1988—but the prospects for the planet keep getting worse. At first, climate change was discussed as a distant problem, something to fix for future generations. Then it was discussed as geographically remote, something that was happening in some other part of the world. Now it’s recognized as something that’s happening today to people living in the United States—and yet what are we doing about it? Usually, it seems, very little. Kim Stanley Robinson has dubbed this period of doing-nothing-much the Dithering; Amitav Ghosh suggests calling it the Great Derangement. Something has gone terribly wrong: A problem that is widely recognized as threatening millions of lives, perhaps even the future of human life on Earth, has not been addressed seriously and doesn’t seem likely to be.

For a while, democracy was deemed to be the culprit: Democratic politics, some argued, simply isn’t suited to addressing problems that lie in the future or extend beyond national boundaries. Climate change is just too complicated for most people to understand; better to leave it to the experts. It’s too hard a subject to broach during a political campaign; no one really wants to think about something so depressing, and what politician in his or her right mind would call for lowering living standards in order to decrease carbon emissions?

Now that capitalism is again on the table as a political issue, it also gets its share of blame. The political problem, it’s now said, isn’t democracy alone, but rather that democracy is held hostage by oil money and the politicians purchased by it. Even some capitalists are starting to acknowledge that the system could use some tweaks. (Others, like Elon Musk, are planning to decamp to Mars: the Great Derangement indeed.) Swapping corporations for democracy as the root of the problem is a welcome development. Yet serious political thinking about climate change remains in short supply. Most people are now worried about it, but few are putting climate change at the heart of their political thought and practice.

In this context, Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s new work of political theory, Climate Leviathan, is a welcome addition to the small but growing body of climate writing on the left. It’s a book explicitly aimed at understanding the political dimensions of climate change instead of relegating them to a paragraph or two in the concluding section. It also takes a different tack than most works on climate politics. The authors are not interested in why we aren’t acting to curb carbon emissions; instead, they’re interested in the kinds of political scenarios that are likely to emerge in response to the approaching ecological crises.

Climate change will be so central to human life and global politics in the coming years, Mann and Wainwright argue, that the response to it will shape the entire future world order, not merely the statements that issue out of the United Nations at the end of every year. If the left is to play a part in shaping this new world, they continue, it needs to think seriously about the “political tools, strategies, and tactics” at its disposal. Climate change, though a novel and previously unimaginable problem, does not actually require a radical departure from traditional left struggles for freedom, equality, and justice; it simply poses new versions of familiar dilemmas. Our political thought doesn’t need to address climate change directly to offer insights into the role that the left can play in responding to it, but we will need to develop old ideas in new directions if we are to navigate a world that is now changing radically.

Toward this end, Climate Leviathan engages a wide range of political thought, from Gramsci to Hegel, Kant to Naomi Klein. But as the title suggests, at the heart of the book is Thomas Hobbes, whose Leviathan remains the fundamental work on the sovereign power that underpins modern states. Hobbes looked at a nation torn asunder by the English Civil War and reckoned that it was better to relinquish one’s freedom to the authority of an all-powerful sovereign than to live through such nastiness and brutality. Such a sovereign power did not yet exist in Hobbes’s time, but in describing it, Hobbes sought to understand a political form that he thought might soon come into being.

Mann and Wainwright argue that we are in another such moment, a time when political forms are in flux and one can begin to see the shape of the growing leviathan. They therefore follow Hobbes into a speculative mode, describing the forms of power they think are likely to emerge in the future while recognizing that none have done so yet.

Their other key resource in thinking about this leviathan is the German political theorist and Nazi sympathizer Carl Schmitt, who draws on Hobbes in constructing his own theory of sovereignty. Everyday decision-making is governed by law, Schmitt argues, but sovereignty is to be found in the moments when emergency demands extralegal action. For Schmitt, it was crucial that the sovereign be able to take action against a community’s enemies as it deemed necessary. Sovereignty here consists of the political power that allows a state to override the law in defense of its friends.

As with Hobbes, people accept this extreme form of rule in exchange for protection. The left rediscovered Schmitt during the Bush years, when, as the Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben noted, a “state of exception” had, under the guise of the amorphous “war on terror,” become the norm. But this view of the state has rarely been extended to thinking about the kind of emergency politics that will arise as a result of climate change. Drawing on Hobbes and Schmitt, the authors begin to do this work: Climate Leviathan imagines how ecological disruption will create the conditions for a new sovereign authority to “seize command, declare an emergency, and bring order to Earth, all in the name of saving life”—and this time on a planetary instead of national scale.

Yet this sovereignty is still nascent, and other political forms might yet challenge it. At the core of Climate Leviathan are four types of political formation that the authors believe are likely to emerge in response to climate change. “Climate Leviathan” would be a system of global capitalism governed by a planetary sovereign—not necessarily the individual ruler Hobbes imagined, but nevertheless a hegemonic power capable of taking drastic action; “Climate Mao,” an anti-capitalist system governed by sovereign power at the level of the nation-state or the planet; “Climate Behemoth,” a capitalist system within the autarchic confines of the nation-state; and “Climate X,” which rejects both capitalism and sovereignty for something yet to be determined. These four possible futures, Mann and Wainwright admit, are thus far inchoate. But as we blow past our carbon targets and the impacts of climate change become increasingly destructive, one of these is likely to emerge as the dominant mode of politics.

The most likely victor, the authors think, is Climate Leviathan: It is, after all, already in the ascendancy, epitomized by international pacts like the Paris Agreement and global institutions like the UN Conference of the Parties (COP). These institutions are not currently sovereign in the Hobbesian sense; to the contrary, they are explicitly international, working to coordinate action between sovereign nation-states. But Mann and Wainwright think they nevertheless point the way toward a form of sovereignty that has been anticipated for centuries: one encompassing the world. Thinkers from Kant to Einstein have typically imagined a world state in response to the threat of war; Climate Leviathan would be just such a world state in an age of ecological disaster.

Rising temperatures will produce new emergencies, from tsunamis and hurricanes to famines and refugee crises, and with them new opportunities for powerful states to expand their reach by declaring a state of exception. A major climate disaster could prompt northern capitalist states to take action—up to and including geoengineering—via the United Nations or a European Union–like supranational authority. By calling for agreements at the annual COPs, many climate activists have legitimized Climate Leviathan rather than challenging it. But what these institutions cannot do, Mann and Wainwright argue, is solve the climate crisis: They were created to manage capitalism, and will continue to do so even in the face of catastrophic warming.

Yet while global capitalist institutions have been the primary site of climate politics for the past two decades, Climate Leviathan has a rival: Climate Behemoth represents a “reactionary populism” that turns away from the global elitism of planetary forums on climate change and toward a nationalist capitalism—a dynamic perfectly encapsulated by Donald Trump’s claim that he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”

Visible in Trump’s America, Narendra Modi’s India, and the surge of right-wing Euroskeptic parties across Europe, the backers of Climate Behemoth are a mix of fossil-fuel capitalists, petit-bourgeois reactionaries, and disillusioned working-class people who want to stick it to the cosmopolitan elites and the political establishment. Its contradictory but potent mix of ethno-nationalism, religion, masculinity, and scientific denial make it a powerful but ultimately unstable form; it is likely, Mann and Wainwright argue, to burn out—but in the meantime, it could do plenty of damage.

The revolutionary possibilities represented by Climate Mao and Climate X, meanwhile, are less immediately proximate, visible at present only in fragments. Climate Mao describes a revolutionary transformation led by a noncapitalist state acting quickly to address climate breakdown. In Mann and Wainwright’s account, it follows its namesake but also Robespierre and Lenin in suggesting “the necessity of a just terror in the interests of the future of the collective”: It pits the power of the planetary sovereign against that of capital. Climate Mao, that is, portends a renewal of “authoritarian state socialisms” that act to reduce carbon emissions and address climate emergencies, eventually on the level of the planet.

China’s unilateral restrictions on corporations and citizens alike show a glimpse of this future, though one not operating at full strength. Indeed, Mann and Wainwright take pains to argue that China isn’t currently on a path toward Climate Mao. The Communist Party can close steel mills in a matter of months to minimize emissions, but China is no longer plausibly described as communist; to the contrary, it has committed to working with the Western capitalist powers to build the international system that characterizes Climate Leviathan (think, for example, of Barack Obama’s much-lauded negotiations with Xi Jinping).

Nevertheless, Mann and Wainwright insist that in the near future, Climate Mao is only likely to emerge in Asia: Latin America may have a more robust legacy of radical ecological politics, but only Asia has the necessary combination of powerful states and major economies paired with vast numbers of peasants, proletarians, and surplus populations whose expectations are likely to be frustrated by the disruptive effects of climate change. Only in Asia, in other words, is it possible to imagine popular movements seizing state and economic power in a way that would meaningfully affect the world’s use of resources.

Some of these futures may be worse than others, but none, to the authors, seems likely to be particularly just. That’s where Climate X comes in: It names a democratic movement against both capitalism and sovereignty, the “X” intentionally suggesting a journey into the unknown. Though X’s meaning is teased throughout the book, it is not until the very last chapter that Mann and Wainwright finally delve into its details.

It’s disappointing, though not entirely surprising, to find that this is also where the book’s otherwise lucid, often sparkling analysis falters. Coming up with a politics adequate to an existentially threatening and essentially unprecedented problem is a deeply daunting prospect, as the authors acknowledge time and time again, and they’re understandably reluctant to describe in too much detail what it might look like. In the hopes of “illuminating possible paths through apparently impossible problems,” they offer a set of loose rather than programmatic ideas: three principles, two “openings,” and two trajectories. The principles, drawn from the left’s traditions as well as contemporary climate-justice movements, are equality, democracy, and solidarity. Equality affirms that we all share the earth; democracy assures the “inclusion and dignity of all”; and solidarity recognizes the common cause of preserving life on this shared planet while affirming many ways of living on it, a “world of many worlds.”

The openings offer tentative possibilities for left praxis instead of prescriptive certainty: The first is found in the “categorical refusal” that animated Marx’s reluctance to detail the communist future in favor of ongoing revolutionary thought and practice, and the second is found in the stance of bearing “witness to crisis,” which is surely already in our midst. The two trajectories that ground Climate X are the longer histories in which these principles and possibilities are rooted. One is the left’s anti-capitalist tradition stemming from Marxist political economy; the other is composed of the alternatives to sovereignty found in indigenous and anti-colonial movements, forms of knowledge, and ways of life. This second trajectory, the authors believe, also offers some resources for “living differently, radically differently”—not simply by making the 21st century superficially greener, but by helping to change our relationship to the land and the planet altogether.

As these nebulous offerings suggest, Mann and Wainwright don’t pretend to have Climate X fully figured out. Examples of actually existing movements that more or less fit the mold of Climate X, they grant, remain far from overthrowing either capitalism or sovereignty. The Zapatistas, who launched an offensive against the Mexican state in 1994 and have since retreated to the countryside, offer a view of Climate X’s promise but also its limits: Though entire communities have withdrawn from the reach of the state to live according to their own principles, they remain surrounded and contained by its power. It’s certainly unclear how they might effectively counter climate change from this position. These and other contradictions, Mann and Wainwright admit, may lead readers to sympathize with Climate Leviathan or Climate Mao, which at least get things done. But despite these challenges, they maintain, we must insist on noncapitalist nonsovereignty. As Adorno says, “It could come.”

This conclusion is starkly at odds with the book’s opening cry for strategic thinking on the left: Shrewd analysis gives way to repeated avowals that things must, and therefore can, be otherwise—never mind how, exactly.

“The priority,” Mann and Wainwright argue, “must be to organize for a rapid reduction of carbon emissions by collective boycott and strike.” And yet, almost immediately, they pull back from this position—too utopian—and then lurch forward again: After all, we need to be utopian. “We must create something new,” they explain. “More of the same is not an option.” Surely they are right on this count. But absent further discussion, calls for massive and immediate boycotts and strikes as a means of putting an end to a global economy built on fossil-fuel use register as wishful thinking at best. At times, this seems not merely utopian but unjustifiably so: If things are as bad as Mann and Wainwright claim—and they are—principled refusal and gestures toward living otherwise are no longer sufficient, if they ever were. If the response to the “marked unimaginativeness” of most climate politics is a flight into imaginative fancy, we truly are doomed.

Similarly, the call to heed indigenous approaches to sovereignty is left mostly unexplored. Indigenous politics have been particularly effective in struggles against fossil-fuel infrastructure not only because of underlying philosophies regarding sovereignty or nature, but because indigenous groups have acted strategically: Native claims to land are useful in blocking pipelines, and First Nations groups in Canada, in particular, have embarked on an aggressive legal campaign to reclaim unceded lands. Likewise, in Latin America, internationally recognized indigenous rights have proved a potent legal tool in the fight against new oil or mining projects in the region. These complicated political efforts demand more substantial analysis; they aren’t merely metonyms for nonsovereignty. At the same time, their lessons are not easily transferred to other political struggles. How far can these projects for self-determination take the climate movement, with which they are sometimes but not always aligned? What insights do they hold for actors without similar legal claims, cultural identities, or political histories?

Meanwhile, deeming sovereignty inherently and irredeemably unjust has the effect of categorically ruling out too wide an array of political possibilities. It suggests that movements must act in opposition to both the state and capital simultaneously, and must do so prefiguratively—that is, by modeling the relations they hope to bring about. But if a Zapatista-like movement is unable to effectively fight a powerfully repressive state and globally mobile capital, why should we take it as a model for undoing them? (Indeed, the Zapatistas themselves have engaged in a range of tactics over time, including, these days, electoral politics: The Zapatista Army of National Liberation recently endorsed a candidate, María de Jesús Patricio Martínez, who is running in the 2018 Mexican presidential election and seeking to represent indigenous communities.) As the authors observe, the problems that climate change poses are part of a much longer history of struggles for freedom and justice—the only difference is that now we have an ecological deadline. Surely this means buying time must be an essential part of left strategy, even if it means working to mitigate the worst effects of climate change within systems that we eventually aim to dismantle or transform.

The difficulty of solving for Climate X ultimately reflects the limits of the book’s typology, wherein planetary sovereignty and global capitalism are presented as all-or-nothing choices. Exploring ideal types can be clarifying, but what would be more useful in our present moment is an effort to dig into the possibilities of working within, through, and beyond the Climate Leviathans and Climate Behemoths that already exist—perhaps the latter most of all. Indeed, in the face of a rising tide of reactionary Behemoths, which shows little sign of receding, planetary sovereignty seems like something of a red herring: Global capitalism surely isn’t done for, but there is little to suggest that the planetary sovereign is waiting in the wings.

Must movements really be opposed to all forms of sovereignty, on all scales, in order to oppose a capitalism-reproducing world state or achieve any measure of justice? Is there truly no left-populist Climate X that could act as a counter to Behemoth at the level of the nation, no way to channel planetary solidarity through international—not necessarily global—institutions? The difference between, say, Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to nationalize and decarbonize the British energy industry and Justin Trudeau’s sign-off on private pipeline projects in Canada may not be enough to save the planet, but it would seem to deserve at least the status of an opening. Instead, the ways that actually existing states have acted in relation to their subjects as well as in relation to capital are collapsed by the authors into an argument about sovereignty—for or against.

Mann and Wainwright are by no means alone in hedging about what is to be done. Two other recent books on the eco-left—Jason Moore and Raj Patel’s A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, and Andreas Malm’s The Progress of This Storm—end in more or less the same place. All recognize that the “global fascism” that Mann and Wainwright name Behemoth is far more potent today than any eco-left formation, but try to muster hope by looking to some movements for climate justice, all the while insinuating that a much greater upheaval is necessary.

Like Mann and Wainwright, Moore and Patel decline to draw a “road map for class struggle that simultaneously reinvents humans’ relations with and within the web of life”; instead, they suggest their own five principles—recognition, reparation, redistribution, re-imagination, and re-creation—and their own movement of movements. Their expansive view of capitalism, which takes seriously the place of unwaged work, colonial appropriation, and coerced extraction, makes it possible to understand a much broader coalition of struggles as anti-capitalist and capable of helping to head off climate change: the indigenous movement Idle No More; the peasant movement led by La Via Campesina; the work of disability-rights activists and Argentine socialist feminists. They also suggest that a more salutary political formation can be found in the “alternative nationalisms” of indigenous and aboriginal nations that exist “in opposition to capitalism’s ecology.” Yet while Moore and Patel detail the long history of popular resistance to capitalism, the effect is more discomfiting than heartening when one remembers that literally centuries of struggle have yet to achieve their aim. What, exactly, would make the next couple of crucial decades any different?

Malm’s The Progress of This Storm, meanwhile, issues a welcome call to get serious about political agency but ends on an unapologetically apocalyptic note that borders on adventurism. “The warming condition spells the death of affirmative politics,” he declares. “Negativity is our only chance now.” Perhaps this is why he concludes, like Mann and Wainwright, with Walter Benjamin—in Malm’s case, with Benjamin’s idea of a “destructive character” that reduces existence “to rubble—not for the sake of the rubble, but for that of the way of leading through it.” We must destroy fossil-fuel capital, he suggests, before nature destroys us.

When Marx scorned the project of writing “recipes for the cook-shops of the future,” he called instead for a “critical analysis of actual facts.” The actual facts are not auspicious—yet we have no choice but to face them. The threat posed by climate change demands that we imagine a very different world, one that does not exist now and never has; and one, moreover, that is not oriented toward our current ideas of progress and the future. As each of these authors observes, the threat posed by climate change requires political action of a different order and magnitude than anything currently on offer: Business as usual will not suffice. It is worrying that thinkers so astute about the dynamics of capitalism and nature appear stymied by how we can escape them. But they are undoubtedly correct that climate change will shape politics for the foreseeable future, which shrinks by the day.

So while Mann and Wainwright and other supporters of a possible Climate X need not draw blueprints, some hard questions demand answering. How is the massive global fossil-fuel industry to be dismantled without state coercion? How would an anti-sovereignty and anti-capitalist movement prevent the enormously wealthy from decamping to some reasonably stable patch of the world? How are massive boycotts and strikes to be not just imagined but organized? What’s to prevent private coercion from replacing the public kind?

Certainly, many on the left are too blithe about the state, presumably on the grounds that you seize it first and ask questions later. Those who tend to think that state power is necessary to undertake the kinds of projects needed to address climate change should say more, too: How do we think the “good state” of welfare and public schools can be detached from the “bad state” of war and prisons? How do we imagine actually winning enough state power to usefully wield it? And how can we then transform it rather than finding ourselves transformed by it?

These are real questions, not rhetorical ones, and they have urgent implications. Climate Leviathan helps us understand what they mean and why they matter, and offers rich conceptual resources with which to think them through. These questions will ultimately have to be answered in practice more than in theory, but they deserve our attention—and soon.

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