Image: HighGreat, Lighting the Dawn of Victory (drone celebration of the reopening of Wuhan)
would have passed beneath our yoke …
Rome, if you have such love
of evil, wait until you have forced all the globe
to submit to Latin laws—then turn your hand
—Lucan, Pharsalia I.17–23
To describe the order of the world emerging from the pandemic, Dino Ge Zhang has offered the phrase Sino-no-futurism. My own decomposition of this intriguing term runs as follows.
0 (Futurism): Mass politics is demobilised in quarantine, but thought is not. The idea that catastrophe overwhelms all philosophy, that all thought must fall silent in the face of unfolding disaster, is as attractive as it is wrong. Catastrophe functions as the best and ultimate proof of thought: it is “precisely that which impels us to further assert ourselves within the world” (Moynihan). Beneath its burning shadow decrepit forms evaporate into mist. When it brings a system of thought to failure it is not because the world stopped making sense—it is because the intellectual universe never made sense to begin with.
In different states this impulse is now manifest politically in a new futurism, a futurism of necessity that has already realised tremendous political and economic innovations: the introduction of universal basic income, fantastical new financial devices, coordination of entire sectors of the economy by the state. With striking contempt for the past, governments have struck through the certitudes of neoliberalism and instituted a new dominion of biopolitical emergency before which everything else has bowed its head. Systemically this is a defensive action, not the beginning of a postcapitalist order: yet it represents a qualitative shift in the functioning of capitalism unlike anything seen since the first entry of China into the world-market half a century ago, and perhaps since the Great Depression.
1 (Sino): The West is at last confronted by the nightmare of seeing the image of its future reflected in a mirror it has made alien. COVID-19 has struck a tremendous vengeance for the techno-orientalist fabrication of China as a distant authoritarian society in the future with vast resources at its disposal. Sinofuturity has been pushed to the point of parody as Chinese people witness events they have already lived through unfolding with perfect predictability in the West. Perhaps this is not surprising: nightmares have an unfortunate inclination to become real.
All the more nightmarish for Westerners, China’s empire of data-flows has come to serve an eminently positive function—so de Seta. Politically, this does not so much discredit the “illiberalism” of China’s hydraulic information control as articulate what, in fact, contemporary illiberalism means. Illiberalism is, simply, what the suppression of a virus demands—on this, the sad anxiety over Chinese political methods is entirely justified.
A cyclone of feverish emotion is gathering around this revenant-image even as mass politics itself lapses into impossibility. Polling suggests an absolute majority of Americans want reparations from China; higher numbers still want it to be punished one way or the other. In the academic world it is easy enough to understand the fury of those who had made it their business to market the West to Asians and have suddenly found themselves divested of authority. Yet denial and sickened worry have emerged even among the very people who once embraced the prospect of a world no longer wholly dominated by their culture, or who looked to China itself as a potential model.
Not like this!—the realisation that the game of political speculation has ended and reality has come to take its debt: more than anything else, this reaction demonstrates that a true cultural rupture is taking place.
From China itself an opposite reaction has sprung. Newly justified nationalist disdain for the West’s failures and anger over its accusations have joined for the moment, in many quarters, with fresh confidence in the Party’s exclusive ability to tame the turbulence. The clash between these American and Chinese impulses has increasingly distorted the pandemic into total information war—but the stake is not yet the world; it is the definition of China itself, control of the image at the centre of the maelstrom, and, with it, the pretence to incarnate the destiny of the world.
2 (No): In contrast to its Communist predeceased, however, it is not the declared business of the Chinese government to bring about a future utopia. There is quite enough future already—just as there is quite enough history.
By a strange event one of the more prominent pictures that emerged from China’s coronavirus crisis was an image of a Chinese student in hospital reading Fukuyama. Taken at face value, very little in recent events has in fact discredited Fukuyama’s most infamous hypothesis. The irrepressible transformation of all political problems into technical questions has continued apace, and the pandemic itself has only accelerated this process, throwing down before the world a single, awful technical question to overwhelm every political debate.
What has emerged is not, of course, the pleasant liberal world order Fukuyama himself envisaged in the ethereal sunset of the 1990s. The end we are facing is something else—the wholly technicised world, in which mass politics has retreated into irrelevance behind the closed doors of quarantine and hyperregulated biological control. As governments retreat into arcane committees, freed of direct political accountability, information war is waged through Internet phantoms and flickering conspiracies. This is, in some sense, precisely a reflection of the cybernetic world imagined in the 1990s, though a reflection seen through haze and moonlight. We’ve heard enough of “Dark Deleuze”, “Dark Derrida”, and the like: the question at the heart of the present conjuncture may instead be more intractable: how can we defeat Dark Fukuyama? Should we?
My original title for this post was “A World Where Little Changes”. This will seem bold, even bizarre, in our present context of unimaginable economic turbulence and apparent viral-political upheaval—not least, indeed, in the context of the new political futurism I mentioned above. But the measures taken in response to this crisis are likely to repress further change for a long time to come. The advent of UBI, the coordination of the economy, the massive expansion of central bank involvement—all this amounts to a moment of enormous defensive consolidation, and in the midst of a pandemic there is little that people can do to stop it. They can merely plan around it.
As inefficient as planning-by-central-bank is likely to be—and already has been in Japan—the total consolidation of particular capitals will do much to suppress the effects of the classical cycle of capitalist crisis on the commanding heights of high finance.
If this is decay, we are not in any case reliving something like the fall of the Roman Empire. The world is one—so Jiang Shigong has observed—and there is no human power waiting outside, no great untamed expanse from which peoples can wander in. We face the wages of decay as one species, and within this limitless terrestrial horizon a transition of leadership from America to China, for all their profound political and intellectual differences, would represent only a redistribution of power from one potential pole of empire to another, the signing over of the cemetery in which History is buried. (Chinese leaders seem quite aware of this.)
I don’t believe this conjuncture will last forever. The Typhonic pressures of climate change, for one, continue to gather strength, and our seamless imperial circle is unlikely to survive them. This complacent world of endless paper-driven growth, brought into such shameless relief by the stock markets’ sterling performance amidst endless data of economic collapse, is resilient enough on its own terms, and will almost certainly survive this pandemic quite intact on new and yet more powerful synthetic supports. But reality, in the end, insists on itself.
Such a world cannot physically continue forever. If the new futurism of the coronavirus shows anything truly positive, it is that its intractably crumbling heart may well serve as an eventual exterior to the system itself, and here, only here, welling from empire’s intensive local contradictions, there could be interstices from which new forms will proceed, or old forms brought to fulfilment at last.
The diagnosis should then be—no future—for now.