Disaster is a natural part of my evolution, toward tragedy and dissolution.”
– Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
These are apocalyptic times. We are already acquainted with the inconvenient truths concerning climate change. Pollution, overpopulation, deforestation, etc. are making Earth into a ticking time bomb. Yet even when the evidence is overwhelming and catastrophe certain, there is not a lot of will to do something about it. We are not unhelpful pessimists when we say that all climate summits up until now have been failures and while we all know the Kyoto Protocol, we also know that the major polluters of this world (notably the United States) refuse to take part in it.
Recently Lieven De Cauter, a Belgian philosopher and political activist published a book containing a chapter on this topic. The book is called ‘Entropic Empire’ and the chapter I will discuss is ‘The Mad Max phase of globalization’. De Cauter gives a convincing explanation why the global elites are so reluctant and what global (dis)order is awaiting us if nothing changes quickly. I will here summarize his article and give some context and commentaries.
The inertia of acceleration: a race toward the stars
Capitalist economy is based on the presumption that it can incessantly grow. A structural quality of capitalism is that capital must be accumulated. Commodities are produced and sold in order to make more capital, which is then reinvested in the production of more commodities and this ad infinitum. This means that capital should grow and keep growing. In earlier centuries this was not a problem, but nowadays this growth is bumping into its limits. The infinite economic system is contradicted by the finitude of the Earth and its ecosystems. This has led the businessman and politician Cecil Rhodes into saying that:”
The world is nearly all parceled out, and what there is left of it is being divided up, conquered and colonized. To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.”
De Cauter claims that the growth economy is stuck in ‘the inertia of acceleration’, by which he means that growth of polluting production and consumption is accelerating at an incredible speed and can only be stopped by an external force. Capitalism is structurally linked to incessant growth and cannot in itself find the strength to stop itself. The result is permanent catastrophe. Normally a catastrophe is an interruption of everyday time, but now disaster follows so quickly upon disaster that catastrophe becomes the permanent structure of time. Ruptures bomb linear time until it shatters completely.
But why be so negative about the spirit of commerce? Is there no trick waiting in the sleeve of the invisible hand? If Smith was right about the invisible hand of capitalist economy, then there should be a possible balance between the demands of nature and what humanity can supply. Even within the Green Movement the majority of activists and politician believe in a green economy. Wouter Van Besien, head of the Flemish Green Party, even claimed that entrepreneurship could be the motor of a ‘warm capitalism’. The optimists live in the spirit of Kant. The German philosopher, in his famous ‘Towards an eternal peace’, argued that commerce and peace are inextricably linked. Global capitalism will avoid war and disaster because they are ‘bad for business’.
Neoliberal disaster capitalism: shock therapy for the healthy
De Cauter argues that the optimists do not see that the invisible hand sometimes behaves like a fist. Capitalism has indeed adapted itself to permanent catastrophe, but not by avoiding it. Instead it has exploited it. As a result, we enter the stage of disaster capitalism. Disaster itself has become a highly profitable business. De Cauter links this part of his discourse explicitly to Naomi Klein’s ‘The shock doctrine’. The book meticulously documents a series of examples of disaster capitalism (Pinochet’s Chili, Yeltsin’s Russia, the Iraq invasion, etc.). Almost every example can be divided in four subsequent phases:
1) In the beginning there is a state of equilibrium. Most of the times this is a kind of welfare state mix of capitalist and socialist economy. There is a free market, but there is also a strong state to counteract the exaggerations of the market and ensure the fair distribution of basic goods through nationalized companies. The majority of the people benefit from this system, but the rich are unsatisfied because their desire for profit is frustrated. In the shadows of the Keynesian economists there develops a new, neoliberal way of understanding economics. This new school is embodied by Milton Friedman and his Chicago School. The latter naturally hardly find any popular or democratic support for their undemocratic policies.
2) The equilibrium is interrupted by a disaster. In the beginning of the new era of disaster capitalism those catastrophes were unplanned events like revolutions (Poland) or natural disasters (Indonesia and Sri Lanka). But as time goes by disasters are deliberately created for profit (the ‘Shock and awe’-strategy of the United States in Iraq). Those catastrophes are the decisive moments for Milton Friedman:”
Only a crisis -actual or perceived- produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”
3) When the population of a state is still in shock, neoliberals take control over the policies of those states in distress (mostly through international organizations like the IMF or the World Bank). They enforce budget cuts, austerity measures and privatize all public services.
4) When the people regain consciousness and sees what is happening, they are of course not amused. As a result the austerity policies are met with massive protests, strikes and political activism. The government answer to these dissenters is colossal violence and repression. Klein gives here a detailed history of the rise of new torture techniques invading all countries where neoliberal ‘shock therapy’ was administered through the ‘helpful, invisible hand’ of the CIA (think, for instance, of the American involvement in the repressive regimes in Latin America during the Cold War). Repression continues until the spirit of the people of that country is broken and they start complying with the new state of things.
De Cauter claims that climate catastrophes can henceforth be encapsulated within capitalism without the latter having to account for the demands of the environment. Natural disasters can become a market in their own right. But what kind of society would be the result of this new mode of production?
Capsular civilization: the blue pill or the red pill?
The Iraq invasion was the first privatized war. Most of the US military was composed of mercenary troops managed by companies like Halliburton, Bechtel and Blackwater (in which many of the main actors in the war, like Dick Cheney, had a share). The reconstruction of the country too was in the hands of multinational companies. As a result soldiers were not simply citizens exposing their lives to the horrors of death for their country, but also consumers. The providing companies satisfied consumer needs by dualizing social space. The Iraq environment was divided in a green and a red zone. The latter was the outside, the war zone out there. The green zone, on the contrary, was a kind of simulation of America within the threatening outside. It is Halliburton City, a safe sea of pleasure and relief in the midst of terror.
De Cauter uses this example to foretell our post-apocalyptic future. Given the rapid sequence of disasters already occurring and the power of disaster capitalism, we could even say that we already live in post-apocalyptic times. Our social space is also divided in a green and a red zone, but De Cauter writes about hyper-real, infra-real social space and the walls in between them.
Hyper-real space. Most of the western countries form a kind of big green zone amidst the troubles of the Third World. The paradigm of this space is the theme park. The world is a bog collection of commodities to be enjoyed and spectacles to be fascinated about. De Cauter is here heavily influenced by the French theorist Jean Baudrillard. The latter, on whose work the film ‘The Matrix’ is based, claims that reality has disappeared. Instead we are left with simulations disconnected from whatever made reality real. For instance, what makes our environment real is that it can sometimes contradict us. We can feel the reality of nature when it shows itself as a non-human force of destruction (a natural disaster, for example). Today however, nature is not a contradicting force but only an element within the (disaster) capitalist system. Destruction is a calculated event. As a result, that same natural disaster that was once a reality, is now only a simulation of itself. It is a human product that mimics the characteristics of reality. Nothing more. At the most it can be a spectacle on the television screen, a tourist attraction for our theme park. The televised spectacle is more disastrous than the disaster, more natural than nature, in short, a perfected simulation that has outdone and replaces reality.
Infra-real space. The theme park is only a matrix within an outside of slavery and despair. Next to the idyllic suburbs of the megalopolises there are seas of slums (think of the stark contrast in the geography of cities like Lagos). The paradigm of these environments is the state of nature Hobbes talked about. The slums are the residence of the war of all against all for survival. Social reality cannot take shape, not because it is hyper-simulated, but because it cannot attain the cultural level to make reality social. We are left with the mute reality of man reduced to beast.
The new walls. To protect the matrix from the state of nature walls have to be erected to keep the infra-real out. The hyper-real is capsulated and fortified through the construction of new walls and razor wire (the walls between the US and Mexico, around the cities of Ceuta and Melilla, the severe immigration policy of Fortress Europe). Walls have indeed regained their old medieval function. Medieval city walls functioned as constructions to keep strangers out. During the Cold War, the Iron Curtain served the opposite purpose; citizens were to be kept inside. Now the walls return to their former infamous glory. To keep both worlds apart the walls are supplemented by a series of detention camps to abandon intruders to. We are talking about the refugee camps, asylum centers and Guantanamo’s of this Earth. De Cauter takes his discourse on the camp from the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. For him, the camp is the space of the state of exception. In the camp the law no longer applies and the subjects within it are reduced to bare life. All cultural traits are stripped from the individual until only naked existence remains. More radical than De Cauter, Agamben would even claim that the camp is the paradigm of all social space. The state of exception has become the rule (think of the anti-terrorist legislation which can arbitrarily suspend nearly all human rights for the sake of state security). We are all potentially bare life, because every morning two police officers can sit at our bedside and tell us that we are arrested, just like Joseph K in Kafka’s The trial. The truth is that those two police officers are no longer necessary. The state of limbo between acquittal and execution of Joseph K are already our everyday state of being. Guantanamo doesn’t need an arrest warrant.
Eventually our discussion of De Cauter’s essay boils down to one simple question. That question is: do we take the blue pill and stay in wonderland forever, or do we dare to take the red pill and to see how far the rabbit hole goes?