“It seems totally incredible to me now that
Everyone spent that evening as though it were just like any other
From the railway station came the sound of shunting trains
Ringing and rumbling, softened almost into melody by the distance
It all seemed so safe and tranquil.“
“The Eve of the War”, from Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of War of the Worlds
In my recent writings, I’ve talked a lot about the future. In one piece, I noted that the future will likely be ‘everything’, at least in the sense that all our predictions about it are likely to be realized in one form or another. Then, in a later work, I singled out one particular current of futurist speculation, this being a recent trend in utopian post-capitalist literature. In general, the fate of global society in the coming century is something which occupies a great part of my concerns. I worry about the assured challenge of the next few decades, as people everywhere are forced to confront the horror of climate change to a greater or lesser extent. The few safe havens that might be said to exist are being boarded up by the same people who caused this crisis to begin with. The new world has not even begun to be born, and yet the monsters are already here.
But before this future turmoil expresses its true form, I thought it useful to take stock of the present moment: what is this time we are living through? Amid its various currents and eddies, it’s easy to lose track of any historical context. The best interpretations of a given period always seem to happen in hindsight; nevertheless, I find myself grappling for some perspective. Thus, I would like to spend a few thousand words here on my elaboration of the present, how I believe it should be read in the context of history, and what all this means for our near- to long-term future. To be sure, this should not be taken as any kind of meaningful prediction; we all know those tend to age like milk. Still, the prospections of the present will often themselves become historical objects. It is along these lines that I would like my work to be interpreted. What I write here is as personal as it is political.
Part One: Everything Old is New Again
In my search for some sense of historical embedding , I would begin by drawing some broad parallels between the present period and that of a century hence. As I understand it, we are living through the same kind of era that marked the prelude to the First World War. It’s a time that’s known by many different names: the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, the Belle Epoque, or the Fin de Siècle. In broad terms, this describes a period which runs from the end of the Franco-Prussian War all the way up to the start of World War One. If I had to be more precise though, I would argue our particular moment is eerily similar to the ‘dress rehearsals’ of the 1905-1914 period, when any savvy observer could see that some sort of global conflagration was coming. That’s the kind of period we’re living through right now.
Focusing on more particular parallels, I would locate a strong commonality in the interaction of accumulation and death, which are ultimately the same thing. In the early 20th century, it became clear that the industrial power which fueled capitalist ‘prosperity’ would also be responsible for the meat-grinder of modern warfare. In our own case, this connection is even more poetically tragic. Even as the latest gadgets roll off the assembly line, the factories’ smokestacks expel our certain doom. Their association could not be more obvious. In both cases, what we see is that the need to control and increase state-capital resources is essentially a death drive, where any part of the system is expendable for the sake of its continued operation. This ironically includes the ruling class, which often finds that the machine they’ve put into motion will grind them down as well. We can only hope that some of the world’s worst polluters might meet a similar fate. But even this would be a cold comfort for those who have suffered beneath such tyrants for generations. Real justice for these peoples is still a long ways away.
As I’ve described it here, it should be clear that even the most conventional reading of history ought to regard the notion of progress as a great paradox. Only the greatest of bootlickers could ignore the manifest crimes against life and nature which our capitalist order necessitates. Literal billions of workers have been ground into dust for the sake of an owner’s profit, and much the same could be said of every other form of extant kyriarchy. This is as true now as it was a hundred years ago. Yet at the same time, if this earlier period is any indication, then such manifest iniquities will also always be paired with great societal concern.
Here’s the second major parallel I’d like to signal. In my estimation, it is no coincidence that an age of rising exploitation would be paired with major movements towards social and economic justice. This is true of many different periods; beyond the Belle Epoque, I would also single out the postwar economic boom which produced the ‘Global Sixties’. The idea that only an economic downturn could produce social radicalism seems ahistorical to me on this basis. Rather, it is precisely the rising tide which can make people realize that nothing much is being fixed, that the system itself is incapable of meeting their needs. It is in such a cauldron of disappointment that new ideas and movements are forged. In our own time, I think such a period is both recently past—marked out by the false recovery after 2008—and just up ahead, consisting of a sure-to-be-sordid Covid recovery.
Beyond the temporality of this radical ferment, there is also its content to consider. Broadly speaking, the developments I would indicate are marked by a mix of both despair and hope. The general awareness that ‘things can’t go on like this’ is at once frightening and enlivening. The system may be headed for breakdown, but perhaps we can save it from itself, or even transform it into something radically different. To a large extent, this hunger for change is a direct expression of the oppressed; those at the bottom have a more immediate experience of society’s ills, after all. However, another part of these developments is reflective of the middle and upper classes, of their anxiety and embarrassment about the current state of affairs.
As I noted before, only the most ardent ideologue would deny that there is something rotten in the State of Denmark. Amid the general urge to diagnose this problem, some of the most interesting and eccentric programs can be concocted. Back in the early 20th century, for example, we saw such curious economic proposals as Georgism, Social Credit, and Corporatism. In the literary scene of that time, it became the norm that any respectable science fiction author would propose their own utopian scenario. Sometimes, as in the case of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, this even led to real political movements; Bellamy’s book spawned so-called ‘Nationalist clubs’, calling for the state’s appropriation of industry. As this example implies, many of the programs which made up the progressive surge were nothing more than technocratic tinkering. Falling far short of the socialist mark, they merely tried to ameliorate the worst excesses of capital through one reform or another.
This brings me to our present context. As noted in my earlier piece, there is a wide stream of contemporary social thought which could be gathered under the notion of ‘post-capitalism’. However, such a collective term can sometimes obfuscate the disparate origins of its various components. In this matter, I believe it fruitful to filter out the more liberal and reformist elements of this coalition. My reason for this is simple: much like the intellectuals of the Progressive Era, these people eschew a systemic analysis of social injustice for the sake of One Weird Trick. Put otherwise, they believe that some big policy program like a wealth tax, a carbon tax, or a basic income could resolve all the major problems with capitalism, a suggestion which betrays their shallow understanding of this system to begin with. Instead of focusing on the base crime that is kyriarchy, they would prioritize such vague considerations as ‘social inequality’ or ‘the climate’. Their facile analysis determines the scope of their solutions, which is appropriately blinkered. In the end, of course, solving anything is not really their aim to begin with. As long as the reformist elite gets to feel good about Doing Something, the details of their plans hardly matter.
That said, these upper class theorists are not and have never been the only game in town. To their left, we find another category of problem solvers which I would refer to as ‘populist’. While often found to be in coalition with the progressive technocrats, this branch of activists is at least a little more in touch with the people they claim to be saving. Among them, we find left-liberals, social democrats, and pseudo-socialists; basically anyone who’s more popular than a liberal, but less revolutionary than a socialist. Whether historical or contemporary, they can be relied upon to support labor unions, electoralism, and wealth redistribution. In the end, their utopia is one of smallholders, inventors, and well-paying union jobs. For all their fiery rhetoric, peace between the classes is still their ultimate object, however much they might try to flatten these distinctions through the heavy hand of the state. Indeed, in their most radical moments, when they migh support measures such as worker co-operatives or full employment, they reveal their fundamental inability to look beyond capitalist forms of value and property. Even in the context of ‘post-capitalism’, their vision is one where Capital could somehow coexist with circularity, sustainability, and sufficiency. But perhaps these suggestions are merely the result of an unexamined naïveté. If we address this, then those who are aligned with this intermediary category might have a chance of reaching the third and final category of critical social analysis.
Here we come to socialism proper, marked by a willingness to subvert the ruling property regime at its core. From a certain point of view, this perspective has changed the least of all: the promise of a classless, stateless society remains unfulfilled. At the same time, this tendency has also produced the most acute analyses of capitalism’s history, and it has sought to adapt its tactics to this ever-changing enemy. The result is both remarkable continuity and critical difference; we know the old revolutions failed, but we cannot deny the righteousness of their aims. Thus, even as our goals remain the same—anarchy and/or communism, however you’d define those terms—the precise way of getting there has changed considerably.
In the past century of socialist agitation, the classic example of the Paris Commune has been joined by countless others, such as the EZLN and AANES. Most remarkably, we have been able to read new communes into old histories, as a genuine revolution in the social sciences is uncovering a deep legacy of human freedom. In carrying this tradition forward, an emphasis on ecological concerns is obviously paramount. Luckily, anarchist and socialists more broadly have long been on the forefront of this issue, be it through the theory of people like Murray Bookchin or the practice of actually free communities. In incorporating these issues, none of the original goals have been relinquished. Indeed, I would argue they have only become more important. Not only have we found new reasons to change our socio-economic order, but the path to getting there has been considerably shortened. Just as a garden must start from seeds, steadily grown to fruition, so have we learned that there is no ’transition’ to socialism. No ruling class could mediate the necessary changes, for each of them develops their own antagonistic interests. Instead, the kernel of the new society should already be contained within our present practice; this strategy is known as ‘prefiguration’. Through prefiguration, we can eschew the cynical means-ends distinction which marks so many historical revolutions. Only by aligning our acts with our ideals, do we begin to head in the right direction.
Along this path of prefiguration, many inspiring initiatives may be found. To a large extent, it has revitalized the old socialist mainstays of labor unions and democratic councils; both could have a place in the new society, and they teach us the valuable skills of self-government in the here and now. Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, we can identify the success of these institutions with the way they prefigured new modes of social organization. Insofar as the old ideologies of anarcho-syndicalism and council communism failed, their failure was due to subversion from without, including that of other leftists. Though beaten down in the moment, their prefigurative approach was vindicated by history; any strength their statist rivals appealed to was just the false allure of authoritarianism.
That said, I do believe this legacy of state socialism is one I should remark on. Even though its modern incarnations are utterly farcical, we should not presume its total obsolescence. Even a long-dead movement can live on as mythology; if neo-Nazis are to be expected, then neither should we raise our brow at neo-Stalinists. Ironically, I could see such ideologies finding purchase in exactly those countries which led the anti-communist effort. As the US increasingly betrays its citizenry, the latter may find itself sympathetic to ‘the other side’. Another reason to revive state socialism would be a fear of climate catastrophe. The need for large and fundamental changes may make a monopoly on legitimate violence look increasingly appealing. To counter such statist fervor, we should first realize that none of the major state socialist projects have a good environmental track record—just look at the Aral Sea, if you can find it. What’s more, if top-down economic incentives were really sufficient in tackling climate change, then some kind of “Carbon Keynesianism” would be the path of least resistance. Whether through a plan or a state-backed market, you’re just trying to get big industrial actors to do what you want. None of this is anti-capitalist, and it’s not particularly likely to work either. What’s wrong with our present economy is its inherent drive to control and accumulate, not the goal which this drive serves on paper. As anarchists keep pointing out, you can’t centrally plan an ecology.
So much for the statists. In the meantime, all kinds of new and interesting developments are happening among the anarchistic tendencies, most of which accord with the principle of prefiguration. In economic terms, we could point to the way that models like parecon are trying to design a plausible boss-less society. In the realm of property, there is the novel concept of library socialism, which seeks to found the principle of communism in a more familiar institution. Finally, the all-important concerns of ecological reality have animated an endless stream of new theories and initiatives. Beyond the particular prescriptions of green urbanism or permaculture, there is the more fundamental notion of degrowth, which is looking to combine a higher collective quality of life with a drastic reduction in global throughput. As scary as the latter suggestion may seem, it is a simple fact that the present regime of overproduction is neither prosperous nor sustainable. By annihilating the basic drives of capitalist accumulation, we create the possibility for an abundant and ecological society. It’s like having our cake and eating it too: delicious!
All this to say that, for all the problems I’ve signaled so far, there is also a lot to look forward to. If the present period of ideological generation is even remotely like those earlier bouts of progress and upheaval, then we’re sure to see at least some of our ideas of implemented. Of course, how radical this all turns out depends wholly on our own efforts. Within the category of post-capitalism, there is a significant danger of establishment cooption, as indicated by all those technocratic paintjobs pretending to be revolutionary. In this sense, it may be worth wondering why we should even keep with this category to begin with; why not ditch post-capitalism for a more incendiary slogan? The reason I would stick with it is roughly twofold.
First, it might help us to trick the capitalists into giving us some of what we want. While no mere reform could ever meet our total aims, we should not look a gift horse in the mouth. If the state tries to buy us off with a UBI, I propose we simply take the money and keep fighting . As noted before, I don’t believe in a necessary link between comfort and complacency. What kept the people at bay in the Progressive Era or the 1960s was not the carrot of reform, but the stick of state power. As long as we keep ourselves from becoming too dependent on the state—this being the true danger of cooption—then we should be able to bully the boss for some immediate gains before we seize his whole enterprise.
My second motive in sticking with post-capitalism is that it gets us closer to the populists. While their leaders might prove intractable, the reason that people go along with their programs is that they seem achievable within the given system. Of course, we know that state and capital would never allow themselves to be reformed out of existence; they’d simply refuse to countenance the kind of deep financial reforms which would make them obsolete. Still, the idea that society could be thoroughly transformed is itself a valuable one, and those who earnestly believe in this promise are a potent base for further radicalization. If we can get these folks to recognize the interests which oppose their designs, then they will start to see why every post-capitalist must also be an anti-capitalist.
Thus for my little rant on post-capitalism, and its echoing of earlier periods of unrest. Speaking of unrest…
Part Two: On The Precipice
Let’s be clear about one thing: the neoliberal era is as dead as a doornail. Its breakdown arguably started back in 2008, when the bailout of our global financial system made it into a zombie insisting it’s alive and well. Ideologically, though, the admission of change took a little longer. Even among us leftists, I get the sense that the initial wave of anti-capitalist upheaval—roughly made up of those elements we knew as Occupy—was still too trusting of the existing institutions. This judgment may seem odd, given that the novelty of these movements lay in their focus on prefiguration over cooptation. Still, their prevailing rhetoric mostly considered issues of equality and opportunity, notions which almost seem quaint now in their inadequacy.
Over the past decade, we’ve seen Occupy’s agitation against the 1% move into the political mainstream, finding form in the campaigns of a wave of populist social democrats. However, these new progressives have gone on to prove their own inadequacy in the face of both a neoliberal establishment and a rising tide of right-wing authoritarianism. Indeed, I hold the latter development responsible for much of the subsequent radicalization of the Left. Disillusioned by reformism, and yet emboldened by the threat of fascism both in and out of government, there has been a steady move towards strategies of direct action and mutual aid—the Old Faithfuls of stateless organizing.
In one way or another, the dynamic I’ve described above could apply to many different parts of the world right now. From China to India to France to the United States, everywhere the Left has been forced to redefine itself in the face of state terror. While all of these situations are unique, we should not keep ourselves from connecting them. Internationalism has always been the lifeblood of socialism, a point I will return to shortly.
For now, I would focus on the systemic shocks we’ve all been forced to endure in the past few years. Prime among them is, of course, the covid-19 pandemic, a yet ongoing gauntlet of criminal proportions. In trying to solve state-industrial problems with state-industrial solutions, just about every major world government has revealed its total incompetence. Where on this Earth could we find a regime that hasn’t stumbled, that hasn’t failed to keep its own people safe? While the sycophants of state capitalism would have loved to praise China for its ‘Zero Covid’, the recent disaster that was the Shanghai lockdown has put paid to that notion. No, there is no salvation to be had in applying the brute force of central authorities. Instead, millions have died, more have been harmed, and no one has been unaffected.
Here is where we find ourselves at present. At least, it would be if I didn’t have to also address the second global crisis to hit us in the past few years. Right as the most privileged parts of the world were starting to recover from the pandemic, we were hit by the largest European war in a generation, resulting in a geopolitical realignment the likes of which has not been seen since 1989. In considering Russia’s War in Ukraine, for that is what we are talking about here, the first thing to be emphasized is the massive amounts of death and suffering. What all the armchair analysts tend to forget is the actual impact that these conflicts have on people. “War is hell” is not just some idle phrase, but a perennial reminder of the disgust we should express towards any armed conflict, even the kind we wage for our own liberation. There is no glory in the murder of the state, only terror and tragedy. Let this knowledge be our outset.
Once we acknowledge this war for the crime that it is, we will likely also become aware of the reaction that others are having to it. To understand the variety and absurdity of some of these responses, a political perspective is indispensable. What animates both the NATO fanboys and the contrarians on Russia’s side is the reactionary influence of campism. To think that the proxy conflicts of imperialist powers should see us line up on one side or another is ridiculous to begin with. Even Russia’s patent aggression could not affect this principled stance, for the fate of Ukraine’s people is ultimately separate from whatever happens to their government or its allies. Our sympathy for the former should not lead us to align with the latter, as the re-entrenchment of the old order would not be a victory for ordinary Ukrainians. On the anarchistic Left, our only priority should be to aid refugees and anti-fascist militants alike, and thereby promote the self-determination of the self-organized in general.
Thus for the immediate moral and practical questions. With these resolved, I feel slightly more comfortable about tackling the relevant historical issues. First of all, I must admit, I did not see this war coming. Much like many of my fellow leftists, I had assumed that Putin was merely saber-rattling with his purported ‘military exercises’, trying to force concessions through the threat of violence rather than its direct application. The actual war thus came as a shock to me.
However, what surprised me almost as much as the war itself was the international reaction to it. While the outpouring of material support and refugee aid to Ukraine has been a general positive, I am far more skeptical about the response to Russian aggression. For as much as that country’s oligarchs deserve to have their assets seized (along with the rest of the international bourgeoisie, I must say), I worry that the broad sanctioning and isolation of Russia’s economy will prove counterproductive.
General economic sanctions have rarely produced the intended effects: they do not hasten a regime’s collapse, and only impoverish its citizens in the meantime. So I fear it will be for Russia; unless a revolution à la 1905 or 1917 is in the cards, nothing good could come of its present immiseration. This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t support some kind of BDS-style anti-Putinist effort, or that economic lockouts could not be justified on the basis of halting Russia’s war effort. However, to encourage the collective punishment of the Russian populace—or, even more farcically, to combat the concept of Russia itself—does not strike me as the correct attitude. If any real international solidarity could be effected, it should consist of a leaderless, borderless resistance against rulership itself, wherever it may be found. We must not play the game of nations.
As it is though, the game of nations continues, and with that come the unsteady waves of geopolitical realignment. As I’ve noted, its main object so far has been to totally remove Russia from the global economy, as if the international order could simply put its misbehaving members out with the garbage. While such international solidarity is somewhat refreshing, it’s also rather exceptional; one wonders why the world’s oligarchs would deem this conflict a step too far when similar atrocities are committed daily in countries like Yemen and Syria. It seems the whiteness of its victims, or else the ability to score points against a strategic enemy, are more important factors than the actual suffering involved.
Now, you could accuse me of looking a gift horse in the mouth: isn’t it good to see such unity in the face of Russian aggression? Even a country like China is acting far more ambivalent than expected! However, to take such an optimistic stance is to miss the forest for the trees. The fact of the matter is that we’re in a very precarious situation, where a relatively unpredictable leader has chosen to throw all caution to the wind and act outside the bounds of even his own established belligerence. To make matters worse, the response from the rival power bloc of NATO has been to treat this war as a wonderful opportunity to rearm itself. It isn’t every day you see a German chancellor announce a massive increase in the military budget, and be received with cheers instead of stunned horror. What’s especially farcical about these maneuver is that they’re absolutely unmerited by the state of the war itself. If Russia can’t even handle the Ukrainian army (with Western military assistance, admittedly, but still), why would they be any greater threat against NATO? All this is about emboldening the security state for the sake of national stability. War is a racket, and so is the threat of it.
Anyway, this war is but one sordid episode in what is likely to be an ongoing period of systemic crisis. In this regard, the various supply chain issues caused by the pandemic are quite revealing: our globalized economy is incredibly fragile, its infrastructures determined by immediate profitability rather than long-term sustainability. Indeed, perhaps it is in the capitalist economy itself that we will see the greatest near-term changes. The structural problems revealed by covid will not go away, and will only be exacerbated as war and climate change team up to stress these systems further.
At the same time though, a development like the “Great Resignation”—where hordes of people are quitting their jobs to protest bad wages and working conditions—could indicate the basic obsolescence of the capitalist employment system. While wage labor has always been unjust and inadequate, the perennial specter of eliminative automation might finally be rearing its head, bringing with it the promise (or fear) of a permanently unemployed class. Now, the Marxists among us may know that Capital always already relies on its ‘reserve army of labor’; even so, too much unemployment is also bad for business. Especially if these desperate proles have learned that they can make demands of their government, such as the stimulus payments and debt moratoriums which marked the covid lockdowns.
In economic terms, I think the next few years will we defined by a steady continuation of the present trends. Any hope of a post-pandemic recovery already seems silly, as none of the world’s major powers possess either the will or the discipline to pursue a thorough restructuring. Instead, political pressures will come from below, demanding the exact kind of reform in wages, debts, and rents which the recent period has proven possible. I expect the notion of ‘bullshit jobs’ to rise steadily in notoriety, and its concomitant demand for a UBI will not be far behind. In the end though, even these adjustments will only embolden the people. Freed from the shackles of necessary employment, they will turn to those useful efforts which our era demands, be they in the restoration of the environment or the construction of dual power (or both). In these pursuits, the capitalist system of property will prove utterly inadequate. The forces of direct action and mutual aid will both unite communities and provide their immediate praxis, as only their combined effort can produce successful squats, labor unions, and debt jubilees. Where this crisis started with a temporary leniency in debts and rents, it will surely end with the elimination of debt and rent itself. If such optimism is allowed, at least.
This burst of post-capitalist energies may be more necessary than ever. The specter of climate calamity, of which the covid crisis was but a pale shadow, threatens to unravel the very logic of Capital itself. The hard limits of ecological sustainability are not amenable to the basic growth imperative which animates our global market mechanisms. Unless the capitalists’ lackeys can manage to develop some cool new pro-environment technologies (doubtful) or else find some new domain for extraction in outer space or elsewhere (even more doubtful), that’ll be it for the most short-lived mode of production in history. Honestly, the very suggestion that sci-fi speculations like ‘nuclear reactors fueled by lunar helium-3’ could be a viable solution to this crisis speaks to the immense desperation of the capitalist ideological apparatus. Any system that must rely on the ideas of Elon Musk and his ilk is clearly running out of inspiration.
No, there is no salvation to be found in technology itself. What we are faced with now is a fundamental irrationality in our growthist economic paradigm. Even the old statist interventions cannot save us now, for they would merely exchange one model of command for another one. Whether market incentives or government edicts, the methods which created this situation won’t get us out of it. At its core, what we are dealing with is a malicious machine of accumulation and regimentation, a central imposition which is as insatiable as it is inflexible. As long as we believe the world could be ruled like this, or ruled at all for that matter, we will end up at these selfsame points of collapse. If, on the other hand, we want to live, then we need to build a society which respects life itself.
This brings me back to the start, to the way that the world’s ruling classes are ignoring these dire necessities. Unlike before, this isn’t just neoliberal arrogance ignoring any crack in their ideological armor. No, these are acts of sheer stubbornness. As soon as the economy went belly up back in ’08, the writing was on the wall for this period of triumph. That the present order has lasted as long as it did is merely a matter of inertia, and the lack of an organized alternative. But with global disruptions like covid and the war in Ukraine, it’s clearer than ever that the present arrangement of things isn’t working out. Thus, to continue to ignore these signs is an expression of either willful ignorance or blatant incompetence. The only phenomena that could break us out of this state of stagnation are fundamental social breaks, like all the aforementioned wars, plagues, and financial crises. Even these, however, are no guarantee of change: as we’ve seen in our own time, anything that doesn’t kill capitalism only makes it stronger (or at least keeps it going). This then traps us further into our state of cyberpunk ‘accumulation’, where nothing changes even as everything breaks down.
But there is another path: its name is revolution. If we can learn to seize and sustain the means of our collective self-government, then all the issues I’ve sketched so far could potentially be solved. As long as we leave things to the powers that be, the best we’re going to get will be some of the technocratic reforms I’ve mentioned. These will be hard-fought half-measures which won’t get the job done. No, if we intend to struggle for a more free and equitable society, then we must walk the road to revolution.
Part Three: Liberty or Death
Over the past few years, even as a few have clamored for revolution, just as many have been afraid of the alternative. The rise of new forms of fascism seems as inexorable as the general collapse of global society. While the variety of these evils is hard to summarize, it may be instructive to look at the trajectory of our world’s two superpowers: China and the US. The former of these is still seeing its reach increase, using this rise to power to shore up its domestic institutions and extend its influence outwards. Describing this as a ‘neo-authoritarian’ stance would not be inaccurate, though it’s important to realize that this is not much different from the course of other historical hegemons. As much as China’s promotion of ‘tradition’ (i.e. patriarchy and class peace) should disturb us, this is all aided and abetted by the international order as a whole. No amount of tepid tariff-raising or dangerous saber-rattling could deny the basic intertwining of our global ruling class. A crime by any part of it is therefore an indictment of the whole.
On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, we find a fading superpower which is yet hegemonic, the United States of America. Both professional and casual observers have long noted the progressive breakdown of US social peace and prosperity, a process which is at least as old as the 2008 financial crisis. Whether it’s in the form of grinding poverty, institutional racism, or the renewal of Christian patriarchy, all signs point to a deepening of division and dysfunction. In political terms, it seems as if the decades-long effort of regressive activists is finally bearing fruit, them having captured various means of judicial, legislative, and local federal power. Regardless of who goes on to win the 2024 presidential election (and it’s not likely to be a Democrat, ineffectual as they are), the path towards a state-based, court-enabled regime of racial and patriarchal terror has now been secured. Even this is just the start of what a further slide into US civil conflict could entail. Given its preponderance of private arms, and the people who tend to own them, I don’t expect the present trend of horrific mass shootings to let up anytime soon. Indeed, if these trends of central and decentral atrocity were to combine, we could see the beginning of a full fascist insurgency in the United States.
Wherever we look, it seems we are living through a distinctly bleak moment in history. Things are bad, and they don’t seem to be getting any better. Even our desire for liberation seems to be corrupted by appeals to authoritarianism, by people who would trust the state to do what it’s never done to begin with. All around the world, walls are going up and lights are going out. To assert a chance for revolution amid so much oblivion seems like the sheerest absurdity. And yet I must, if only for the basic reason that struggle without hope does not go anywhere. There is no alternative to imagining social alternatives.
Now, I must be clear here in how I conceive of our present shot at liberation. As I’ve pointed out before in this piece, I reject the idea that revolutions result from immiseration, that things have to get a whole lot worse before they can get better. This kind of hypothetical balance is not borne out by the historical record, where the destitution of a given social order often only leads to its replacement by something worse. No, the way I would typify the conditions for social revolution is as a matter of societal potential. Put simply, revolutions happen when a radical ferment of new ideas and social forms (some prefigured on smaller scaled) meets a ruling order which is unwilling or unable to accommodate them. In the resulting clash, if the new formations win out, you get a successful revolution. Whatever comes of that is another question, of course; even entirely novel societies can be corrupted or co-opted. It’s also important to note here that revolutions (if they are minimally defined as a radical change in government) are not inherently virtuous. A period of intellectual fermentation and civil conflict can just as often be regressive in nature. Still, as I’ve been talking about it here, I’m obviously focusing on the good kinds of revolution.
So, what could be said of societal potential in our own time? At first glance, the uncertainty of the present moment only seems to producing a resurgence of chauvinism and authoritarianism. However, this ignores all the wonderful post-capitalist imaginations I sketched out in the first part. In fact, my central purpose in this piece has been to point out how our era mirrors the radicalizing preludes to earlier periods of revolution and change. Just as further crises are close at hand, so is their resolution through any of the aggregate post-capitalisms discussed in the first part. Again, though, we should be careful in our appraisal of such a potent age. The same liminal creativity which empowers our cause is also giving rise to all kinds of incoherent fascist movements, from white replacement terrorists to NatCon integralists. And these are just its US-based variants.
Societal potential is therefore a two-edged sword. If we want to be sure that things develop in the right direction, the questions of method and practice are indispensable. And it is in this context that I would return to my earlier point about interconnectivity. As much as the free movement of peoples might be restricted these days, the international demands of capital ensure a steady flow of goods and ideas nevertheless. This is especially true in light of the digital infrastructure on which so much of our global economy is founded. The trans-national aspect of people’s daily experiences has never been stronger. It is on this fact that we must found our revolution.
Now, interconnectivity is also something which cuts both ways. As capital runs around the world, so do its currents of discontent. But these are both aspects that could work to our advantage. A little earlier, I noted how the United States seems to have entered a terminal decline. In geopolitical terms, this might initially seem to benefit its rivals, with China chief among them. However, it is precisely because our economies and infrastructures are so globalized that no such zero-sum game could be said to exist. Instead, a crisis in one place of the world inevitably cascades to affect all of it. While such changes might be manageable over the long term, it is still an open question as to whether China could take America’s place as both the global hegemon and the lynchpin of our international institutions. What would compound these transitionary troubles is the matter of climate change, and the larger questions about capital accumulation that it implies. Our basic question should be this: does China (or any other part of the world for that matter) have the material ability to pursue the growth incentives of capitalism? Or will its present pace of development be halted by either resource shortages, carbon excesses, or some other fundamental limit?
These are tricky questions. In the first part, I expressed my supreme skepticism about such ‘solutions’ as space-based extractivism or carbon capture technologies. This I maintain. What it implies is the absence of escape, of a new feeding ground for capital. As such, the system as a whole must be said to be heading for a cliff, far more perilous than even the previous mid-term problems I’ve signaled. While immiseration is never the answer, I do believe that we should treat this prognosis as an opportunity, or at least as a dire call to action.
Once again, interconnectivity comes to the fore. In conceiving of a path out of this malaise, it is vital that we learn to connect the various ideas and struggles that our active in this moment. As much as certain contemporary currents of thought excite me, they seem awfully isolated from one another. What’s worse, even these individual theories are utterly unknown. Thus, I do not see our present problem as being a lack of ideas or struggles; they are there if you’re willing to look for them. The real issue is that they are not being connected, that we lack the kinds of intellectual spaces where knowledge of these global movements can be propagated and synthesized. This, to me, is the true challenge we are faced with at present.
Luckily, the solutions to our present quandary are themselves contained within it: among the many radical concepts swirling around the Left, we find the notions of prefiguration and internationalism. The former is one I’ve mentioned before, and the latter kind of speaks for itself. If combined, they could produce a global network of dual power, a society which exists alongside—but also in opposition to—the current social order. The material benefits of such a network are clear: it would create a much-needed independence from the logic of capital, and would actively prove the superior efficiency and compassion of communist economics. However, its cultural and intellectual impact should not be underestimated. By establishing such prefigurative formations, we begin to build a storehouse of institutional knowledge and experience. The mere existence of such a seed will be of great importance once more revolutionary conditions prevail everywhere; in representing the basis of a new society, they will provide an immediate model that can be scaled up as more people turn to them. Even in their nascent form, their existence in real communities will give many people a real taste of what communism means. Their engagement with these institutions will also help to adapt them to their immediate context, thus imbuing them with both particular and general social meanings. Overall, the impact of prefiguration will be virtuous all around.
In summary, what I would propose is a kind of Universal Library, an international decentralized organization to inculcate communist values and practices. This will be a lived anarchy, a tapestry of social experiments which will enrich people’s lives and refine our social theories. It will also be a ‘big tent’ in the sense of encompassing many different currents and tendencies. At the same time, its politics will be united around a notion of ‘emptiness’, standing in for a force which destitutes the present society and establishes a new one on the anarchistic principles of deliberation, autonomy, and diversity. Importantly, these notions of freedom and solidarity are utterly foreign to the forces which oppose us. A fascist internationalism would be inherently incoherent, for its constituents are founded on the creation and maintenance of essentialist boundaries. The anarchist ideal, by contrast, is ever aimed at the dissolution of dualities and the generalization of care. This ‘emptiness’ shall therefore be our unique source of strength.
As I’ve emphasized throughout this piece, we live in a peculiar time. Gone is the endless present of neoliberalism, a triumph from which these is no escape. Yet its replacement is not that earlier aspiration of futurity, of the Space Age promise that put Man on the Moon. No, we are in a stranger state altogether, something that’s far more uncertain and open-ended. The weirdos are coming out the woodwork, for good or for ill. To us falls the task to harness this potential energy for the sake of social liberation.
Central to this endeavor will be our attempt to connect people and their struggles across different national contexts, focused as we are on the elimination of such boundaries. Along with other places, it would also be good to connect our struggle to other times; in ages past, our ancestral comrades faced many of the same problems as we do now. This is something Benedict Anderson points out in his work on late 19th century globalization: anarchists and other radicals have always already sought to build networks of knowledge and solidarity, and their activities arguably formed the basis for what we now consider to be international socialism.
If the latter is to remain relevant in the present global-political landscape, then a commitment to such transnational interactions is indispensable. A retreat into local concerns can only lead to parochial solutions, to a thousand partial answers siloed off from one another. That is almost the situation we’re in now; is it any coincidence that the Zapatistas chose this time to tour the world? Much like them, I’m just trying to get us out of this building before it burns down. And while I may not know the way to the exit, I trust that we will find it together.