In times of climate catastrophe, liberal modernity has a storytelling problem: Impending ecological tipping points that trigger irreversible dynamics in the earth systems seriously challenge the historical optimism fundamental to modernity’s narration of itself. The meta-narrative of historical progress baked into our collective temporal imaginary basically assumes that humanity is in the driver’s seat of history, riding on a highway towards prosperity and justice.
On a theoretical level, this story has been debunked many times as a myth legitimizing capitalist modernity’s regime of colonial dispossession and destruction: From Walter Benjamin’s thesis of history, the post- and decolonial critique of historicism, feminist and queer critiques of teleological thinking and ‘straight time’ to David Graeber’s and David Wengrow’s recent “Dawn of everything”. And yet, on a more practical level, the problem is reinforced by the diagnosis that “the age of extinction is here – some of us just don’t know it yet,”as economist Umair Haque wrote under the impression of the latest and most deadly heatwave on the Indian subcontinent. In his brilliant essay “It was not supposed to end this way” political economist Geoff Mann describes the failure of liberal modernity to come to terms with an increasingly desperate reality: “The tragedy of liberalism is its inability to narrate the end of progress.”
Tragedy of the Left
However, the decline of progress as an intelligible way of making sense of history is a storytelling problem not only for liberal modernity in general, but also for conceptual and political attempts at overcoming the destructive neoliberal status quo. The stories of emancipation that most parts of the Left have told themselves and others over the last two centuries are situated within the modern paradigm of historical development. Sadly, the Left can’t profit from the inability of liberalism to narrate the end of progress because it is invested in the same philosophy of history.
Alternative modes of storytelling like Donna Haraway’s “Staying with the trouble” might be a legitimate epistemological claim that works as a title for exhibitions of Anthropocene-art, but it probably won’t win you elections. At the same time, more positive spins along the lines of “inventing the future” increasingly sound hollow and are in problematic narrative proximity to the liberal post-crisis mantra of “building back better”, not to mention the right-wing populist claim of “making xxx great again”. This inability of the Left to exploit the crisis of liberal storytelling could be described as a tragedy within the general tragedy.
To transition our understanding of transition
In their editorial for the After Extractivism project, the editors of Berliner Gazette (BG) propose the framework of transition justice as a concept that integrates the demands for social justice and the demands for environmental justice. Tansition justice is a conceptual evolution of the just transition idea, which was developed by trade union movements to articulate the interests of workers affected by structural transformations in recent years. The BG editors write: “Transition justice suggests going a step further, namely also taking claims of environmental justice movements into account: ethical, legal, and political issues of accountability and responsibility for the consequences of ecological havoc caused since the so-called “European expansion” in the course of colonization and industrialization.”
The point I’m trying to make in this text is that transition justice as a concept that addresses the ongoing ecological catastrophe beyond the fairy tales of green capitalism has to confront this storytelling problem as it affects modernity in general and the Left in particular. The challenge the pursuit of transition justice faces is not only to articulate a critique of green capitalism and to develop alternatives to it, but to rethink the very idea of transition beyond the story of historical progress that is so deeply flawed. The question of resistance in times of catastrophe is how to transition our understanding of transition itself beyond teleological notions of development towards a better future.
But where to take from the motivation for political action if not from the prospect of progress and betterment?
Civilizational despair and cruel eco-optimism
At the end of her book “Undoing the Demos,” political theorist Wendy Brown brings up the question of despair as a reaction to the ceased faith in the human capacity to influence the future: “Tasked with the already difficult project of puncturing common neoliberal sense and with developing a viable and compelling alternative to capitalist globalization, the Left must also counter this civilizational despair”.
If we follow Brown and adopt her angle to look at the climate catastrophe, we can see that the Left is indeed confronted with a double task: On one hand, it has to counter despair and resist the temptation of ‘eco-fatalism.’ On the other hand, it has to counter what I propose to call with a term borrowed from cultural theorist Lauren Berlant ‘cruel eco-optimism’: fantasies of sustainable development and green capitalism that ultimately maintain and stabilize the status quo.
Lauren Berlant coined the term ‘cruel optimism’ to explain why most of us still believe in the American Dream, although we could know better since it clearly doesn’t work out for the majority. The expression describes the attachment to an object that we desire, although we know that it ultimately harms us.
Cruel eco-optimism delineates a similar dynamic: Although we know that climate policies until now are best summarized as too little too late and that, as a result, we have already entered the age of extinction, most of us back off from drawing the necessary political consequences and find it hard to give up our petrol-based and, ultimately, capitalism-based ‘freedoms.’ Cruel eco-optimism – the attachment to stories of sustainable development and “green” growth because we desire the fiction of ‘normalcy’ despite knowing better – is central to the deferral of necessary political action into the future.
The end is not up for negotiation?
To be clear, the concept of cruel eco-optimism is not trying to individualize political responsibility. The major culprits who are to blame for 30 years of climate change inertia are companies profiting enormously from ‘ending the world’ and politicians following the premise that the American (read industrial modernity’s) way of living is not up for negotiation, as George Bush senior famously said at the first climate conference 1992 in Rio. Accordingly, we have to understand “climate change as class war” as a recent book by Matthew T. Huber makes clear.
What I’m trying to direct attention to by talking about the double task of countering despair and cruel eco-optimism is the psycho-social dimension of this class war that will also be a fight for the political imagination. Yes, it is true, at the end of the day it is about doing what has to be done in the present and putting speculations about catastrophic or socialists futures aside. But as Cornelius Castoriadis central thesis about the political imaginary in “the imaginary institution of society” goes, the capacity to intervene materially and do what has to be done can’t be separated from the capacity to imagine alternatives to the status quo – which is why the storytelling problem I started with matters.
Thus, philosophy of history and questions of the political imagination can have quite worldly consequences. The question, then, is how to imagine the possibility of another world despite a catastrophic present and future without falling for the depoliticizing double trap of cruel eco-optimism or eco-fatalism. In a way, the challenge is to think transition beyond the modern chronopolitical regime, of which, quite obviously, fantasies of space colonization – emerging in regions as different as Silicon Valley and UAE – are only the logical continuation. Practicing resistance in times of post-earth capitalism requires imaginative capacities that the hegemonic modern political imagination can’t provide, because of its dependency on the future to inspire revolutionary thought.
Political potentialities of ‘no future’ affirmation
To put the challenge differently: We could say that the prospect of an uninhabitable earth indicates a new chronopolitical terrain on which the climate class war takes place. It is a terrain defined by precarious futures and devoid of all certainties. This renders the historical orientation and the epistemological maps that guided most progressive political movements throughout the last two centuries obsolete. With a term borrowed from Afrofuturist thinker Kodwo Eshun we can describe the battleground as a “hostile terrain.” In learning to navigate this hostile terrain, maybe we are well-advised to engage with traditions that have something to teach us in negotiating the dilemmas arising from situations of ‘no future.’
We could think about Calvin Warren’s “Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope” and what it might mean to learn from the Black Radical Imagination about the difference between freedom dreams and cruel optimism. With Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro we can decenter Eurocentric historiography by thinking about the end of the world that marked the beginning of colonialism from the perspective of the Americas. From queer studies, we can take a critique of reproductive futurism and engage with the attempts of developing a notion of futurity that goes beyond teleological logics. With the writing collective Out of the Woods we can ask what it would mean to think of disaster communism as a way to resist the coming barbarism.
And we should continue rediscovering a tradition in critical theory that started with Walter Benjamin and that more recently led to the proposal for “a Left without future” and the question of what “politics in a tragic key” could mean. Most probably, these intellectual companions won’t exactly help us in winning elections in the near future. But they could contribute to the political imagination – an imagination that is needed to continue the fights to interrupt these very historical processes that are leading to catastrophe. As the heterodox Marxist with anarchist and surrealist leaning, Robin D.G Kelley writes: “These struggles are not doomed, nor are they guaranteed.”
This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de
Lukas Stolz studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics in Germany and Critical and Creative Analysis in England. Currently he is working on a PhD project at Goldsmiths University London. Prior to that he worked with European Alternatives to foster a transnational civil society with a focus on radical cities. He is also co-founder of the curatorial collective super_filme.