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The Anthropocene challenges liberalism’s vision of permanent progress. So why has it become another technocratic tool of liberal bureaucracy?
Though earth scientists have yet to agree on the “golden spike” that marks its end, we have been told that the Holocene, the geological time-period from the last glacial period until now, is over. We live in a new era: the Anthropocene, an age in which humanity’s geological impacts are shaping not just the trajectory of life on the planet, but the future of the planet itself.
But while social science has embraced the Anthropocene, questions concerning its causes, dating, and political and scientific implications are currently subject to energetic—even fiery—debate. Most widely recognized is the problem that the “Anthropocene” attributes to “humanity” as a whole responsibility for catastrophic interference in the Earth system when, in fact, the largely destructive transformation named by the “Anthropocene” is the result of a relative minority of humanity. If accelerating climate change, biodiversity loss, and nuclear radiation are among its signal indicators, it is clear that it is the direct result of the political-economic organization of the Earth’s richest peoples and regions. This is the reason Jason Moore and others have argued instead for the uglier but more accurate term Capitalocene.
The concept of the Anthropocene complicates the liberal narrative of progress by attempting to rationalize problems that liberalism itself helped generate.
My interest in raising this now standard critique of the Anthropocene is not to impugn its tacit account of history, or to propose another, better name. Instead, I want to use it as a way to think about the problems that the Anthropocene attempts to rationalize. Accelerating climate change, in combination with other drastic ecological transformations, poses what Dipesh Chakrabarty has described as “interesting challenges to several metanarratives of human history,” especially “the ideas of freedom and justice that saturate most humanist narratives of history.” Because the most influential form the humanist narrative takes is its progressivist, liberal variation, my interest in the concept of the Anthropocene is thus in examining its relationship to liberalism.
By liberalism, I mean what I understand to be the dominant normative political ideology in the capitalist part of the world. It emphasizes universalism, formal egalitarianism, proceduralism, and the ethical primacy of the liberty of the rational, autonomous individual. It thus relies on more or less clear separations between political and civil society and between public citizen and private person. It conceives of history in consistent, if not uninterrupted developmental terms. In other words, liberal stories emphasize progress driven by human communities distinct from their nonhuman and inanimate environments, or at the very least those human communities’ increasing capacity to address the challenges facing them through reason and reasonableness.
It is also worth emphasizing that the liberal account of universal history grants the dissemination of liberal ideals a significant causal role in progress, which has often given it a self-congratulatory, acritical character. The concept of the Anthropocene, however, complicates this liberal narrative by attempting to rationalize problems that liberalism helped generate. When it gets picked up by liberal modes of sense making, then, they discover the Anthropocene actually can’t fit the narrative because it is proof that the end of liberalism is near. Thus, the question arises of how liberalism will narrate its own end.
Paul Crutzen, a chemist, published the founding article about the Anthropocene in Nature in 2002. The term picked up on sensibilities that were already part of sociobiological common sense, and it quickly became the subject of popular discussion. But if we concentrate on the ways in which the Anthropocene has functioned as a fundamentally liberal conceptual tool for ordering the history of “human civilization”—as Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin put it, “the formal definition of the Anthropocene makes scientists arbiters, to an extent, of the human–environment relationship”—we can see it as a symptom of liberalism’s paralyzing inability to situate or ground itself at this moment in history. As Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in National Geographic in 2011, “Crutzen, who started the debate, thinks its real value won’t lie in revisions to geology textbooks. His purpose is broader: He wants to focus our attention on the consequences of our collective action—and on how we might still avert the worst. ‘What I hope,’ he says, ‘is that the term ‘Anthropocene’ will be a warning to the world.’”
Today, more than two centuries of arrogant triumphalism seem to be degenerating into what one could be forgiven for calling permanent emergency.
To the world, indeed. As Rob Nixon has asked, “What does it mean that the Anthropocene as a grand explanatory species story has taken hold during a plutocratic age?” The conceptual and narrative floundering of the Anthropocene as a liberal-managerial term is especially notable in light of the fact that the liberal narrative is a story not about practice but about ideals. Given the realities of the devastating transformations the Anthropocene announces, another round of self-congratulation regarding the contribution of liberal ideals to the progress of human civilization is no longer possible, and this has vast repercussions.
There are at least two closely related ways in which the idea of the Anthropocene signals the anxious unsettledness of liberalism. The first brings us back to the “we” named by its implied “humanity.” This is a “we” without a “they.” This is the regulative ideal of modern liberal discourse, which remains dominant in the global North. It refuses outright the “realist,” zero-sum conception of politics associated with someone like Henry Kissinger, or the jurist Carl Schmitt, for whom the defining moment in politics is the distinction between friend and enemy. The very idea of the Anthropocene—like, say, multilateralism, multiculturalism, or cosmopolitanism—posits a collective subject without an enemy: a “we” whose self-declared openness and inclusivity makes it an impossible object of enmity, or even of critique.
There are of course very powerful criticisms of these universalizing liberal categories: the “public interest,” for example, is usually the interest of a specific fraction of the public; the “international community” obscures geopolitical hegemony and conflict, and “human rights” are very unevenly distributed across a hierarchy of humanity. The “solidarity” performed by these categories is a false solidarity, and that of the Anthropocene’s “humanity,” implicated in a so-called “global collective action problem,” is an equally false solidarity.
But the inaccurate and, indeed, basically history-less and geography-less “we” interpellated by the Anthropocene is only part of the point. The second way the idea of the Anthropocene signals liberalism’s fading confidence arises from the fact that it represents a desperate attempt to rescue a rule of temporality with a narrative device that cannot help but undermine that rule as soon as it is introduced. A recent paper in Ecology and Society, for instance, calls the Anthropocene a “game changer”:
Debates and analytical frameworks for considering how to secure a ‘good life’ for people today and in the future have proliferated in recent literature, as are discussions about altering the unsustainable trajectory of human activity that earned the label Anthropocene in the first place. The concept has highlighted a growing sense of urgency; we need to better understand the processes of transformation and innovation and marry that knowledge with our growing understanding of complex social-ecological interactions to build the capacity to both respond to new disturbances and risks and to move toward sustainable pathways.
I want to emphasize how difficult it is to imagine the Anthropocene as a moment in any humanist metanarrative saturated in the “good life.” The political-economic organization of the global capitalist North is the most devastating for life on Earth. This is where the whole problem originates and where the most radical changes must take place. And yet, the specifically liberal narrative that names freedom and justice as essential ingredients to the “good life”—the story that many of these privileged residents tell themselves—is one of the most fundamental obstacles to change.
This is because rather than confronting past and contemporary unfreedom, injustice, and ecological devastation in their actual, often quite purposeful operation, the metaphysics of liberalism engages them as unfortunate historical mistakes. It thus attaches to catastrophe the status of anomaly. This is, for example, the mundane response to phenomena labelled “market failures,” which signal “temporary” mismatches between actually existing capitalism and the idealism of liberalism’s unfolding conceptual self-measure. As if markets usually did things just right, and these were exceptions.
These massive gaps between its ideals and its actually existing effects are clearly not a new problem for liberalism to deal with. What the late Domenico Losurdo called its “macroscopic exclusion clauses” have long been a crucial way of managing the lack of overlap between promise and practice. Insofar as Losurdo emphasized the way these exclusions displaced unfreedom from a white male bourgeois European who was the historical agent in the narrative, those exclusions were generally spatial. But one of the principal temporal means through which liberalism’s failures are sublimated is through the concept of crisis or emergency. In fact, crisis is one of a family of closely related nouns now indispensable to modern political thought: crisis, emergency, exception, each of which carry within their meanings an unspoken but irreducible opposition to the status quo or business as usual.
We are in a transition during which “adaptation” supplants “progress” as the telos of the age.
The pairing of crisis and stability, exception and norm, emergency and nonemergency, is at the core of what I call liberalism’s reality management system. This family of concepts is also central to the ways in which a lot of social science, not only orthodox but “critical,” tries to make sense of the world. Each of its members only makes sense insofar as it conjures up an equilibrium or ordinary against which its extraordinariness is notable. Even for an extreme exceptionalist such as Carl Schmitt, for whom the decision to declare an emergency is the defining act of sovereignty, the thought of a permanent emergency is an oxymoron. As his student Reinhart Koselleck put it, the “uncertainty of a critical situation contains one certainty only—its end. The only unknown quantity is when and how.”
And yet today, more than two centuries of arrogant triumphalism seem to be degenerating into what one could be forgiven for calling permanent emergency. If spiraling political economic inequality, the disintegration of democracy (however nominal), and the rise of macho racist nationalism did not seem challenging enough, climate change alone promises a red alert that is unlikely ever to turn off. “Progress” is not one of the things we expect the Anthropocene to inaugurate. One might even go so far as to say that if the Anthropocene has a plot, it is usually presumed to be tragic. Insofar as it has a place in the metanarrative it is, I think, widely understood as potentially the final act in the “human drama.” It sometimes seems as if our purpose, now, as actors in that staging, is simply to delay the curtain call as long as possible. We are in a transition during which “adaptation” supplants “progress” as the telos of the age.
This has potentially devastating implications not only for the liberal metanarrative, but for liberalism more broadly, at least partly because it seriously destabilizes its capacity to provide its proponents, or anyone else, with some sort of useful historical and geographical orientation. Growth, progress, consensus, reason, reasonableness, equilibrium: none of this can be depended upon at present. Even liberalism’s conception of what it means for something to go wrong, the promised finitude of the moment of crisis, does not work anymore. If we prod at these cracks proliferating in liberal ideology and institutions—cracks from which the Anthropocene emerged—we also find ourselves challenging concepts like “risk” and “uncertainty” which we use to help ready ourselves for the future.
All of which is to say that the reality management system by which history is assembled for Spaceship Earth’s most privileged passengers has failed, and those passengers do not know what to think or do because the categories that are supposed to make sense of experience are increasingly inadequate. The tragedy of liberalism is its inability to narrate the end of progress. Yet this is the impossible task asked of the Anthropocene.
Let’s examine the Anthropocene’s destabilizing effects on uncertainty and risk—the standard tools by which we make sense of both ongoing and coming changes.
These two closely related and often conflated phenomena have become absolutely central to our reality management system. In his 1921 book Risk, Uncertainty and Profit, Frank Knight argues that although we tend to use them interchangeably, risk and uncertainty are not the same thing. “Risk” describes what he calls “measurable uncertainty,” whereas “true uncertainty” is unmeasurable. His understanding of measurement was broader than you might expect, too, so “true uncertainty” has a distinct character. In Knight’s words, “The best example of uncertainty is in connection with the exercise of judgment or the formation of those opinions as to the future course of events, in which opinions (and not scientific knowledge) actually guide most of our conduct.”
Unlike the Holocene, we can only understand the Anthropocene as a future. We are waiting to see not if, but how it happens.
Knight has been called “the most famous economist you have never heard of,” because his framing of this distinction helped operationalize both risk and uncertainty at the core of modern economics. It is built into the foundations of game theory, decision theory, and the neoclassical obsession with expectations. At a less technical level, Knight’s conception of risk is essential to contemporary finance—both as the focus of byzantine pricing models and as the quasi-Nietzschean justification for the astounding inequalities generated by finance capital. Because Knightian “risk” is both knowable and calculable, it is an “objective” feature of the world, and thus on this account it is presumably willingly born, or not, by the rational, autonomous agents that participate in modern capitalism. Commensurate rewards ensue.
But let us question some aspects of the analytical appeal of risk and uncertainty. For example, if we take the impact of climate change to be the single most significant dimension of the Anthropocene, then we might ask ourselves, as each scorching summer passes, how well uncertainty characterizes our current condition. I cannot speak for anyone else, but it seems to me that the realm in which we can describe ourselves as meaningfully uncertain is rapidly shrinking. All the science suggests we should expect existing climate patterns to accelerate and proliferate. Consequently, I do not feel in the least uncertain about climate change and its broad effects. Nor is “risk” an inadequate term here, insofar as it is ridiculous to call something a “risk” if one judges its probability to be 1.
Instead, what is actually uncertain is how “we,” both as an earthbound species and as members of our own communities, deal with what seems increasingly certain. In other words, what is uncertain is the timeline and extent of the violence and destruction involved in the “adaptation” to a hotter, more volatile environment. And therein lies part of the epistemological substance of the Anthropocene, an era which, unlike the Holocene, we can only understand as a future. We are waiting to see not if, but how it happens.
How does liberalism deal with that? Not very well, it seems. The dominant response has been to turn to what over the twentieth century became an increasingly indispensable component of its reality management system: the “trade-off”. If contemporary liberalism had a periodic table, trade-off would be one of its basic elements, something of a tragic element insofar as it testifies to the ultimate imperfectability of the world, its tendency to always fall short of what it could or ought to be.
The ontology of the trade-off posits that virtually every meaningful unit in the social world, from wages to the household division of labor, is in fact the outcome of a trade-off, some more willingly or consciously engendered than others. Examples include: jobs–environment, freedom–security, work–leisure, family–career, equality–efficiency. The trade-off is liberalism’s substitute for the dialectic. And, because liberalism’s practice has always fallen far short of its ideals, because its practice has in fact required endless illiberalism (unfreedom, injustice, inequality, oppression), the trade-off is one of the key concepts through which a liberal world is rendered sensible.
The trade-off is a relatively recent addition to the liberal conceptual cannon. The OED dates its modern use to the turn of the twentieth century in the United States. But it captures a sensibility that emerged at that time across much of what we now call the Global North. Max Weber’s work, for example, is saturated in it, as is, I would suggest, that of Keynes’ and a whole host of other folks we think of as liberals but who are also among liberalism’s most devastating internal critics, such as Hannah Arendt and even Friedrich Hayek.
We are daily bombarded with proof that the liberal politician is not taking responsibility him or herself, but rather accepting responsibility on behalf of the people, and then distributing it, usually very unevenly.
In Weber—Knight’s secret intellectual hero, it turns out—the inescapability of the trade-off expresses itself most clearly as a reluctant but total resignation to the fact that politics itself is tragic, and its tragedy is the inevitability of violence. As he said in “Politics as Vocation,” any attempt to avoid this terrible truth “stems from a most wretched and superficial lack of concern for the meaning of human action, a blasé attitude that knows nothing of the tragedy in which all action, but quite particularly political action, is in truth enmeshed. . . . Anyone who makes a pact with the means of violence for whatever reason—and every politician does—is at the mercy of its specific consequences.”
Weber would have us believe that the Faustian bargain with violence is the deal modernity must make with itself, and it must make that deal in the realm of politics. Indeed, since for him politics is the terrain of the state and sovereignty, the modern state is this diabolical pact.
Almost half a century later, Arendt echoed this analysis in its general form. Like Weber, she conceives of human history, for her something still close to progress, as entailing necessary if regrettable tragedy. She too emphasized that violence is purely a means, “instrumental by nature,” justifiable only by the ends it pursues. And she too seems to identify the violence that underwrites the state and politics as a kind of inescapable tragedy, although for her it functions more like a tragic “political” variation on primitive accumulation. It is, as she said, the tragedy of human freedom: “the old and terrible truth that only violence and rule over others could make some men free.”
The tragedy of politics at the heart of liberal thinking, then, is that the world requires violence. It is a world of progress, but also a world of scarcity, in which someone must bear the burden of life’s necessity, so that the historical work of freedom and justice can continue. Since no one would willingly bear this burden, the violence that grounds politics is inevitable. This is the liberal tragedy, as its most incisive advocates have understood.
In other words, if a tragic sensibility is tempting, even logical at this moment in time, it does not mark a break with liberalism. On the contrary, it is part of how liberalism has managed the tragedies it has wrought. As Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau put it many years ago when confronted again and again with the historical devastation of Indigenous peoples by liberal capitalist Canada: “We must forget many things if we want to live together. . . . What can we do to redeem the past?”
But the temporal posture of the Anthropocene, however we date its origin, is futural, and the future is not something we can redeem, nor is it something one can forget. Instead, we anxiously await what the Anthropocene will bring. We have crossed the threshold of a new age, and now, we wonder, what will happen next? Or, more precisely, since we have a pretty good sense of what will happen next, what we wonder is “when will it happen, and who will it happen to?” Who will bear the burden of necessity?
This is the way in which the Anthropocene realizes its failure. Constructed in an attempt to rationalize—in the Weberian sense—the present as the next stage in liberal modernity, it unintentionally announces its demise in crises no one can promise will end. Inaugurated at least partially to communicate the solidarity of humanity on “our” fragile Spaceship Earth, it unwittingly exposes the uneven violence of the distribution of life’s burdens across human communities, communities whose “unity” is a product of the ascriptive inclusion that is the only way the powerful can fool or convince ourselves that the burdens are collectively born.
This is how liberalism narrates its own end, convinced that acknowledging it is equivalent to avoiding it, because acknowledging it is held to be progress, a way forward.
If this inclusivity takes its discursive-scientific form in the Anthropocene, its logical political corollary is what Joel Wainwright and I have called Climate Leviathan. Climate Leviathan is an emergent global order committed to the organization of a form of planetary sovereignty that can overcome the so-called “collective action problem” posed by climate change. Framed in terms of Arendt’s “terrible truth,” Leviathan is, at its most fundamental, a mechanism for the distribution of life’s burdens on a hotter and more volatile planet. Moreover, because those burdens are not always usefully captured by “risk” and “uncertainty,” this will largely involve the distribution of responsibility for future burdens.
One might even say that if Leviathan is a mode of planetary rule, the Anthropocene is its social contract. The Anthropocene, like any other contract, is an explicitly future facing instrument of temporal power. Like all contracts, it restarts time on its terms. The distribution of responsibilities it represents is always also the closure or supersession of past arrangements. So, a contract that has no expiration, like a constitution or the Anthropocene, is supposed to mark the end of the past and the beginning of a new time. For the parties entering into it, a contract functions like an historical version of the reset button on your odometer. This is why we speak of a contract being “settled.” It purports to produce the conditions for settling past accounts—obligations, debts, histories—so that we can “move on.”
In the Anthropocene’s new time, then, there is no longer any “they,” there is only “we,” the collective subject of history from now on. The Anthropocene, of course, is clearly not a means by which all are united. Many refuse the call of “humanity,” and many others do not even hear it. But it is crucial to acknowledge the sustainability or coherence of the “Anthropocene story” for the relatively affluent, liberal communities to which it clearly is, and always was, addressed. It was constructed in many ways as a scientific-discursive means to take responsibility for where “we” have in fact wound up.
Yet the Anthropocene has proven incapable of helping its signatories understand what that reckoning entails. Instead, it reproduces the inadequacies of liberal conceptions of responsibility by misconceiving who can and should speak for “humanity” at this moment. This is because the Anthropocene “takes responsibility” very much in the “diabolical” manner Weber demanded of liberal politicians.
Weber argued that responsibility is one of the key characteristics of the true politician: “what concerns the politician [is] the future and our responsibility for it.” He or she is subject to the “ethic of responsibility,” which commands that one takes “exclusive, personal responsibility for what he does, responsibility which he cannot and may not refuse or unload on to others.” “What matters is… the trained ability to look at the realities of life with an unsparing gaze, to bear these realities and be a match for them inwardly.” At first glance, this all sounds well and good. Would it not be great if we had politicians like that?
But this is a terrible misconstrual. We are daily bombarded with proof that the liberal politician is not taking responsibility him or herself, but rather accepting responsibility on behalf of the people, and then distributing it, usually very unevenly. Worse still, as Weber points out and has proven true, the “true politician” is almost always rich—this is what enables them to live “for” as opposed to “from” politics. Consequently, politics for the plutocracy is not a responsibility with any stakes. Instead, liberal politics is a procedural medium for the distribution of unrefusable responsibility in modern societies: think, if we need an example, of the whole framing of the necessity of austerity, a regime imposed by those who claimed to be looking reality in the face, “taking responsibility” for “us” on our behalf.
Contrary to liberal conceptions of history, the end of liberalism is not the end of the world.
In much the same manner, through the Anthropocene, the most privileged accept the “realities of life with an unsparing gaze,” bear these realities, and “take responsibility” for the current conjuncture on behalf of “humanity.” The “courage” of this act alone is supposed to help us gather ourselves to move forward, to allow us to recognize ourselves in the “common present” of a moment of crisis. This is how liberalism narrates its own end, convinced that acknowledging it is equivalent to avoiding it, because acknowledging it is held to be progress, a way forward. The supposed courage of staring the world in the eyes, naming the crisis, “taking responsibility” for the truth on behalf of “us” all is supposed to stand as proof that liberal ideology and institutions hold the answer, a way out. “We” have just not found it yet.
That they do not does not mean we are doomed. We are not doomed. But just as there is not a universal “we,” there is not just one way forward either. Contrary to liberal conceptions of history, the end of liberalism is not the end of the world.
Instead, the arrival of the Anthropocene—and its role in revealing the shaky foundations of liberalism—might allow other histories and futures that have been yoked to liberalism by a set of practices and promises to provide their subjects (and perhaps “us”) with potentials that we cannot yet see. Those others are, for the most part, greatly impoverished by their contact with liberalism and its siblings, capitalism and colonialism. They will need time to ask their own questions of the future, to which the Anthropocene is very unlikely to be the answer, and to identify the true uncertainties that liberalism seems to have foreclosed.
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