Viral Empire

The throne of universal empire may be raised above the ruins of universal catastrophe.

The world is out of joint. Each day brings news of a different sector of the economy buckling under unprecedented pressure; each evening, governments and central banks scramble to plug the holes. With every new financial artifice the economy becomes ever more synthetic. The beast lumbers onwards on bionic limbs.

A fund report recently forwarded to me observes that, while Western markets gyrate upwards and downwards on scales unknown since the Great Depression, investors have taken flight to Chinese equities markets because of their “more policy-driven” character. All of a sudden, capitalists are quite happy to favour planning. And as dollar liquidity evaporates, the renminbi has increasingly borne the currency markets’ load.

The present crisis has had the formal aspect of a world war. Markets have panicked, borders have slammed shut, governments have scrambled to mobilise resources, liberal freedoms have been swept away by the stroke of a pen, and huge swathes of the labour force have been temporarily withdrawn. In some respects, true, the quarantined world is an “anti-wartime economy“: the foremost planning task is to coordinate the shutdown of disparate economic sectors rather than to ensure total mobilisation; the stock of capital is not being destroyed. But in its cultural, political, and administrative implications, the analogy of war is accurate enough.

It is far too early to claim with confidence that this “war” is bringing about the end of American hegemony, yet a new systemic order is clearly in emergence. The virus, as viruses often do, has only accelerated this process. If there is any past model it bears resemblance to, it is the crisis-dampening managerial capitalism predicted in the early 20th century by such economists as Rudolf Hilferding and Joseph Schumpeter. Their prophecy once seemed discredited: Schumpeter’s prediction that the heightening organisation of capitalism meant that crises were increasingly a thing of the past was made only months before the catastrophe of 1929; Hilferding’s warnings of the advent of a general cartel of magnates that would coordinate the entire productive process have looked quaint to modern seekers of market disruption. But things are changing at a drastic pace.

“The tendencies towards the establishment of a general cartel and towards the formation of a central bank are converging,” Hilferding wrote in 1910, “and from their combination emerges the enormous concentrated power of finance capital, in which all the partial forms of capital are brought together into a totality.” We have certainly lived through an era of financialisation, and the crisis of 2008 already threw economies around the world onto the intermittent life support of quantitative easing. Now—as the present crisis involves central banks ever more deeply and directly in sustaining the real economy, and large corporations such as Amazon assume the functions of economic planners in the face of logistical breakdown—Hilferding’s claim about the reorganisation of capitalism around a general cartel deserves a second look.

Is this simply a temporary compensation for an unprecedented crisis, as Keynesians would suggest? The pandemic itself will certainly pass—perhaps in much shorter order than the more pessimistic predictions have made out. (Perhaps.) But the extraordinary fiscal and financial methods that have been brought to bear are unlikely to disappear. The world before 2008 never quite returned, and there is little reason to expect that the world before 2020 will be different. There will, in many countries, be a prolonged period of resolving the ruination of economies so fragile they have barely withstood a disruption several weeks long. (We should be thankful that there have as yet been no great power wars in the era of globalised just-in-time production.) Beyond that, the task for the immediate future appears less as the return to intensive productive expansion than as the administration of stagnation.

This new dispensation will place immense pressure on what remains of the post–Cold War world order led by the West, in every component—the unbearable pressure of a double bind. Disintegrative forces threaten the cultural presumption of Western supremacy; the political power of the United States to compel various kinds of action around the world; the economic world-empire of the Federal Reserve; even—whisper it—unquestioned American military predominance, depending on the actions of other world powers in the days to come.

At the same time, the pandemic has posed administrative problems resolvable in principle only at the order of the entire human species. Certain socialists have argued that the virus is a consequence of capitalism; that the future order must prevent such outbreaks through harmony with nature. I see things otherwise: any subsequent order that successfully coordinates the world will deal with epidemiological and other natural crises the likes of which have never been seen before. Carl Schmitt once observed that the notion of a world-state is absurd as long as humanity is not at war with an alien force. Such an alien force has arrived. Its successors will follow. The throne of universal empire may be raised above the ruins of universal catastrophe. Whose empire? Doing what? Stagnate? Perhaps. The gates of play-history seem almost closed.

A postscript on China. The continuing economic shock to China should not be underestimated, yet at this stage, whatever its early role in the crisis, China seems better prepared to deal with its global effects than most. This does not appear to me simply as a matter of superior planning. Xi Jinping’s government presents itself as an administration that exists beyond the end of history. Rather than the grand organic development that incompetent observers of contemporary China have perceived to flow from the mythical perpetuity of Confucianism, under Xi the past has been packaged as material to be rearranged. The “Confucian tradition”, like any other, becomes a building block in a great political edifice.

As the past itself appears to retreat into impossibility, it may be this temporal stance, more than any other, that holds the key to the construction of the world order that administers the new era of cartelisation. Whether the productive force and the aesthetic impulse are available to resolve this protracted crisis of human acceleration—is a question for another time. Certainly, even stagnation has its providential role.

The limit of modernity at the horizon of myth

The preeminent condition of the present time is aesthetic desperation: the search for the smallest piece of beautiful scrap, the most vanishing hint of a serious ideology, that has not yet been brutally subsumed, commoditised, disenchanted, and ground to dust. If I have been accused of fleeing into the ‘ruins’ of Christianity, such an action ought to be entirely unremarkable: in fact, for the Western mind at least, the entire world is more and more a ruin, and we inhabit it almost as ghosts.1 Mark Fisher cut to the heart of the matter: ‘Capitalism,’ one of his most famous and devastating passages observes, ‘is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.’2 When everything solid dissolves into air, all that is left on the ground is ash.

This condition is not just a consequence of material forces, however, but the product of a specific and ongoing crisis in the perception of time. The ruination of the future, as Reinhart Koselleck first observed,3 began with its unwinding in the Reformation, where the onrush of the Apocalypse impinged increasingly upon the indefinite time of the liturgical calendar; it intensified with the unhinging of history from the future in the Enlightenment; and—we may add to Koselleck—it reached a new turn with the displacement of acceleration from the realm of political to technical phenomena in the nineteenth century. In short, where once the future stretched forwards indefinitely in repetition of the present and the immediate past, it became, first, radically distinguished from the past, then emptied of the fixed, apocalyptic content of early Protestant millenarianism, and finally displaced entirely from human control.

For Koselleck, the temporal predicament of the Enlightenment had inaugurated a modern era of ‘critique and crisis’—critique, because the abyss of the future rendered impermanent all human institutions; crisis, because it invited the Enlightenment intellectual, the philosophe, to hide the void with an ideal future of his own design, and the dissonance between these utopias and prevailing social realities introduced an unbearable gaping disjuncture in the ordering of politics that no institutional setting ever since designed has succeeded in closing. In this regard there was little to differentiate revolutionary from counterrevolutionary—politics had become a war for the future over the ashes of the past. A small-time conservative pamphleteer—one Edmund Burke—described his own destiny with reference to the horrific fate of the Hussite general Jan Žižka, whose skin was flayed and stretched over the drums that would beat the sound of war: Burke’s person was to be ground into the total war against revolution.4 Through this all there has run the feeling of a growing acceleration of events; and where in the early nineteenth century a figure such as Metternich could still see the task of politics as the reordering of time through managerial restraint of social acceleration, in 2018 politics has either given itself over to the fact of this acceleration—or adopted a standpoint far more classically Protestant in its gleeful apocalypticism.5

Grasping this history will shed light on what may seem a strange remark I made in Catholicism and the gravity of horror, viz.:

Under the compressive impulse of recent modernity, however, the distinctively open future of the Enlightenment seems to be coming to a close. What is characteristic of this “cyberpunk” age is the collapse of the boundaries not just between the future and the present—a “future so close it connects”—but also the past: for progressives as much as conservatives, the future comes to be constituted by the recovery of historical projects prematurely foreclosed.

The question is this: How does one conceive the future? For enlightened man, the future was to be constructed, a supposition embodied in an endless proliferation of utopian schemes. A quite different answer, however, was provided at the start of the twentieth century by Georges Sorel.6 The future, Sorel saw, is the product of myth, of cosmic suppositions that ground and envelop what is merely human. To ‘construct the future’ is therefore to elaborate a myth. The significance of myth is not, in this sense, in its truth or falsehood, but in its social effects: to call the idea of the end of capitalism, as Sorel did, a myth was not to pass judgement on its propositional validity, but rather to point out what sort of effect it had.

This was not in itself a new idea, and it is all too easy to jump from this idea to the cynical notion of natural religion common to Machiavelli, Plato, Hobbes, and Nietzsche, who all see religion as an instrument to be gauged, manipulated, and engineered to produce the most salutary possible effects on society. Yet—and here was Sorel’s critique of the Maurrasian school of integralism, the decisive realisation that distinguished him from Nietzsche and all his predecessors—myth cannot be merely engineered. The fantasy of the speculative philosophe later identified by Koselleck was always just a fantasy, in its full pathological sense. Cynicism itself abolishes the utility of myth; the success of myth depends on the faithfulness of the mystagogue; and fully enlightened man, in fact, even when he imagines he has mastered his mythic ground, sprawls beneath the symbols of a greater myth, which he can barely perceive: the ‘illusion of progress’.

What is more, the illusion of progress is a myth that runs up far too easily against the limits of material production. Already a hundred years ago, Sorel could perceive that this illusion was out of joint with the reality of capitalist development. The determinants of industrial production tend not towards a linear progress up and away from the past—that preeminent, always-disappointed fantasy of liberalism—but to periods of decline and recovery, and finally to a strange recapitulation of the past, a recapturing of previous eras. Grounding himself in an eclectic mix of natural-scientific research, Marxian economics, and syndicalist theory, Sorel foresaw not the indefinite and universal intensification of industrial concentration, but a corresponding tendency of decentralisation, a strange return of the workshop and of the artisan in the context of capitalist technical progress. Against the mainstream of Marxism—and against later theorists such as Schumpeter who would decisively identify the trajectory of capitalism with indefinite industrial concentration—Sorel’s vision of the far future self-abolition of capitalism was one of distribution, the internal development of workshop organisation; we may say, in the tradition of Catholic social thought, subsidiarity.

With this the Enlightenment predicament comes to an end, and Sorel alights on the horizon of modern social thought, beyond which to think of modernity is itself impossible. The reintegration of the past into the future through the tendency of industrial development towards the circuitous recovery of history—what Sorel identified with Vico’s historical ricorso, the moment of renewal after decline—and the simultaneous reintegration of the future into the present through myth, which becomes identical with authentic natural religion, combine to dissociate the characteristic underlying basis of modernity. The horizon of modernity is the horizon of myth, and its line is broken by the temporally unanticipated dawn of something that—to the horror of liberal minds—looks very much premodern.

All this is to show, at the first and basic level, the importance of myth as the limit of modern social thought—but, more than that, it is also to suggest the importance of Christianity, which demands not just submission to a given prior, as Sorel conceives myth, but to the truth, and which in its fullest form counterposes itself more than any other religion in history to the world as a whole. For the moment, that world remains stuck in what looks like a last phase before ricorso, what Sorel termed decadence, and which Fisher identified with the condition of capitalist realism. It is remarkable, from a theological perspective, that this dispensation bears a close similarity to the ‘empty time’ of the final epoch of the Old Testament. In von Balthasar’s analysis, this empty time was a moment of baited breath, in which the Israelites searched desperately for some measure of recovery of the glory of the Lord with which they had had such immediate contact in the distant past: spreading their search across every different field, through introspective mysticism, through apocalypticism, through the desperate reiteration of blood-sacrifice, they sought to recover an aesthetic experience which seemed, terribly, to have disappeared.

Yet this moment was not, as they thought, entirely barren. Indeed, the unbearable night of empty expectation may in fact be pregnant with the light of a future only dimly imaginable: ‘“For that night” (illa enim nox, Wis 18.6) in which at about midnight the work of redemption and the work of annihilation took place simultaneously,’ says Balthasar, ‘this night remains impenetrable. It is absolute judgment, and—in the very heart of this—the incomprehensible superabundance of grace (Rom 5.15–21). It is the ever greater measure of humanity’s failure, which increases the blood-guilt beyond comprehension, and—therein—the ever greater measure of the mercy of God …’7 Here, however, we have entered the realm of theology proper, where secular social theory and the logic of natural religion must fall silent.

References

1 Or, as the Holy Father says, ‘Terra, domus nostra, in immensum sordium depositum magis magisque demutari videtur.’ Francis PP., Laudato sì (2015), §21.
2 M. Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Ropley: Zero Books, 2009) p. 4.
3 R. Koselleck, trans. K. Tribe, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004); id., Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1988).
4 E. Burke, ‘A Letter from the Right Hon. Edmund Burke, to a Noble Lord, …’, in The Works of Edmund Burke, with a Memoir. In Three Volumes (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1857), Vol. 2, p. 193.
5 See R. Jones, ‘1816 and the resumption of “ordinary history”’, The Journal of Modern European History 14 (2016), pp. 119–44; M. Siebert, ‘Linkola, Montana’, Jacobite (July 19, 2018).
6 I have discussed Sorel elsewhere, but Sorel’s Illusions of Progress and Reflections on Violence form the indispensable bedrock to an appreciation of his thought. Further exploration of these features of Sorel’s thought is forthcoming from myself and from Edmund Berger.
7 H. U. von Balthasar, trans. Brain McNeil C.R.V. and Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. Vol. VI: Theology: The Old Covenant (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), p. 400.