This article questions the wisdom that climate-induced political changes are inevitably authoritarian; and suggests instead that centralisation and political dominion will weaken as we leave the stable Holocene era, potentially — but by no means necessarily — opening the possibility for more reciprocal models of political organisation.
That the world is changing rapidly is undeniable. National governments are falling, climactic norms are being constantly smashed, and an increasing financial tightening on everything from food to housing is underway. This should not be news to anyone at all aware of the world around them. But whether you think these events represent a rough bump in the story of our global civilization, or the beginning of its end, is another question entirely.
The possibility of collapse, and in this sense I mean our contemporary globalised civilization, not all complex human polities, has a growing body of thought attached to it. As potential signs grow more frequent, classic collapsitarians, such as John Michael Greer (Author of The Long Descent) and Craig Collins (who penned Four Reasons Civilization Won’t Decline: It Will Collapse), have been asking more complex questions about civilizational collapse.
Thought by collapsitarians now goes beyond simple prophesising, but proposes theories on the specifics of the ‘collapse’ and what comes after. However, that people who have long considered civilizational collapse an inevitability should sophisticate their understanding as potential signs emerge is not particularly remarkable. Its credentials for civilizational pessimism well established, we should all be expecting many editions of journals like the Black Mountain Project to come.
What is more interesting, and perhaps more worrying, is the traditionally optimistic fields tackling the question of civilizational collapse. Unipolar geopolitics, so long assuming a historical teleology towards the liberal capitalist nation-state, has been significantly discredited. An interesting voice to emerge out of this intellectual reorientation is Peter Zeihan (Author of The End of The World Is Just The Beginning), and whilst US exceptionalism lingers awkwardly within his work, it is a United States as a competitor, rather than dominator, of this newly multipolar world. His geopolitical analysis sees the US as able to weather the storm that will unravel globalised trade and force national outlooks to become more insular. It is remarkably cognisant of the new topography at the end of our economically ‘Flat world’, outlining the advantages and disadvantages of myriad geographical configurations. However, this is not to say his work is at all times so prescient about the world’s geopolitical evolution; overreliance on demographic determinism and pathologically negative depictions of China mar the analysis.
What is interesting about voices like Zeihan is that there are now popular political considerations of the outcome of our generalised crisis; that of climate breakdown, mass extinction, resource exhaustion, and their attendant socio-economic consequences. There is, in other words, widespread debate about a political order after the Holocene.
One book that elaborates on this possible political world is Climate Leviathan, which delves into how the globalised political system will react and evolve in the face of a collapsing climate system.
However, Leviathan leaves much to be desired as a book, a review in the Eco-socialist journal Climate&Capitalism describes it as a:
“…jarring, dissatisfying read. Its best arguments are left undeveloped. What should have been tangential points are expanded upon in bland, circuitous detail. Its central proposition is not supported by strong evidence. It promises a new political theory, but its conclusions are vague, hesitant and almost painfully schematic”
For all its faults, I want to draw attention to its central thesis, because it is indicative of a wider trend in the theory of future climate politics. This central thesis is that, as it currently stands, the world is heading towards either the eponymous ‘Climate Leviathan’ (a UN-dominated capitalist world order) or ‘Climate Mao’ (A China-dominated state-socialist world order). Regardless of the particular, the authors predict the Climate and biodiversity crisis to induce globalised elites to “seize command, declare an emergency, and bring order to the Earth, all in the name of saving life.” Both these options and the arguments for their likelihood are poorly developed, but their lacklustre theorising is a sign of a wider trend in climate political theory: A fetish for authoritarianism.
First, let’s clarify terminology. By fetish, I don’t mean a desire for it, very few theorists of green and climate politics see increasing authority as a desirable methodology for dealing with either climate change, mass extinction, or resource strain — though some doubtless exist. What I mean by fetish is an obsession (without sufficient empirical support) with a looming authoritarian turn created directly as a response to global socio-ecological breakdown. Climate Leviathan is only the most obvious example of this, but overblown certainty about future eco-fascism are common in the space. For example, the writer ‘B’, a popular critic of modern civilization, expects:
“…a permanent state of emergency to be declared as a result [of climate breakdown], putting an end to the collective illusion of freedom and democracy. Bereft of their wide customer base to keep the ruling classes of technocratic business elites high, oligarchs would start sponsoring the worst despots of all time”
This is of course not to say that a whole host of authoritarians, reactionaries, and even outright fascists use (superficially) green justifications for their political programs. But in a world so suffused with greenwashing already, should we be surprised to find repressions boots in a new green tint? I do not doubt, nor discount, the importance of studying the authoritarians who use climate politics as a justification — as a contemporary phenomenon. The increasing restrictiveness of UK protest laws in response to climate protests are an example of this contemporary phenomenon, but their inability to curb the protests signals a state lashing out as it falters, rather than successfully tightening its grip. If we are to study the future of politics past the stability of the Holocene, predictions of inescapable authoritarianism would require a far stronger evidential base than its proponents currently have.
No Elite Survives.
A combination of historical precedent, biophysical constraints, and contemporary trends can help show that, whilst climate-induced despots are not out of the realm of possibility, their likelihood is less so than a climate-induced loosening of hierarchical power.
The first point to make is that a globe-spanning dominion emerging, a la the Climate Leviathan or Great Transformation, is pretty much impossible on current trajectories. If energy scarcity and climactic instability are only going to increase, then the ability to maintain the colossal supply infrastructure of a domineering core will be that much harder, let alone the projection of its power. The United States army, the single biggest consumer of petroleum on earth, is entirely reliant on this energetic largess. The relative abilities and availability of alternate power sources preclude an electrified US army. This reality of peak oil and energy tightening subsumes many other ways domination can be exercised, as whilst geographical and socio-economic advantages (population, technical infrastructure, resource availability, or food production) will still exist and allow comparative political advantage, the lack of energy will reduce the ability to project and leverage these advantages.
The significant control of the state in our current body politics, though varying from places like France to China, is a social contract in part cemented by the delivery of ever-increasing GDP growth and access to cheap, fast commodities. But as I outlined in a previous article:
“economic growth doesn’t resolve underlying tensions, but merely drowns it out in the distractions of prosperity. It induces us to let out arbitration abilities atrophy, further justifying the pursuit of growth as the only metric towards social desirability. It is an antibiotic remedy, integral in appropriate dosage, but exacerbating the problems it seeks to solve if overused.”
Without the ability to deliver this consistent growth, the control of states will be ever harder to justify, a trend we are already seeing play out across war-weary Russia. We shouldn’t take this to mean the inevitable end of the nation-state beyond the Holocene (though it could still happen). But without the lubricant of easy energy, a stable climate, or the ready resources of a long built-up ecology, the likelihood of an even greater degree of dominion — when even current geopolitical bodies are becoming more strained — is almost entirely out of the realm of possibility.
The bronze age collapse, partially climatological, geological, and ecological in cause, certainly didn’t create even more domineering empires, it destroyed them. The people who won out in the fertile crescent were not the Assyrians or Hittites, but those with — whilst not necessarily more egalitarian — more libertarian political makeups; the nomadic Arameans, or the roving sea peoples. In Greece, the domination of violence-monopolising Mycenaean elites collapsed almost entirely, and city-states, built on the backs of freewheeling traders and farming communes, flourished. The notable anarchist work Desert makes this point, that a breakdown in the globalised world will likely be an age of the nomad and commune, with highlanders reconstituting local management, and Afrotropical herders spreading out across defunct borders.
Most society will likely not revert to such loose polities, but the power of local municipalities will be far more immediate than crisis beset national governments. As resources strain, the ability to project internal centralised power and thus collect the resources to support it are likely to diminish. local groups and leaders will take precedence. Will this create local strongmen? Potentially, but I am relatively confident that now the ‘cat is out of the bag’, regarding democratic governance (regardless of how illusory it currently is), it will be near impossible to stamp it out. We will not be the Germanic kingdoms aping Roman imperial dominion, but smaller political units hashing out our own interpretations of what the democracies we in all likelihood still de-jure reside in really stand (or stood) for.
This is, again, not to say that the difficulties imposed by a world with scarcer resources and without sufficient adaptation can’t be used as ammunition for authoritarianism and other forms of reactionary politics. But without access to easy energy and resources, centralised authority will be much harder to maintain, let alone expand. Likewise, looser state power does not necessarily mean an increase in personal or social liberty, as the extremely localised despotism of Afghan society now shows.
But as the noted anarchist philosopher David Graeber pointed out, when it comes to a society undergoing dramatic environmental or climatological changes, no established elite makes it out the other side. The world that emerges after the collapse of the Holocene will almost certainly have elites, but the chance of them being our existing elites, let alone those same elites with greater power, is not the risk we should be worrying about.
If not dominion?
Whilst this article is primarily concerned with criticising the kneejerk prediction of climate-induced despotism as the Holocene ends, it does beg the question of what will happen instead? We obviously can’t predict which polities will make it through this transition and what will emerge in its aftermath, but certain precedents for political formation do seem more likely given coming conditions. One example of a political order that might, in its own way, re-emerge is something akin to the Mandala states that emerged in ancient and medieval Southeast Asia:
“In these Mandala-polities, an urbanised political core was the central locus of a sphere of influence which became increasingly diffuse and segmented as distance and geographical barriers increased. These governance structures are often referred to as ‘theatre-states’ because power and hegemony were exercised largely via spiritual and temporal prestige. Despite the strong psychosocial pull of the centre, subordinated peripheries were thus able to remain relatively unincorporated both materially and geographically. This historical process did not just create diffuse geographical demarcations, but different types of agricultural and environmental landscapes, distinct in their localities but connected via the wider socio-political sphere that maintained a feedback system between them.”
The collapse of a world where easy energy and its attendant utilities of transport, production, and maintenance will not be a total reversion to either Hobbes or Rousseau’s relative states of nature. But it will mean a radical reconsideration of the roles and abilities of governance. Certain traits that we currently conceive as desirable will, without their energy requirements being offset by fossil fuels, seem less worth the effort; but this will not apply to all aspects of government. This divergence of local society and state, whilst extremely likely, will probably never be total — there will always be some factors binding the periphery to the core, always one advantage a centre can leverage to keep the local in its orbit.
This will be a world where governments are less obsessed with demarcating boundaries but instead will focus on making the offerings of their cores more attractive to orbiting communities. It will undoubtedly be an entirely different social contract to that which we currently have, where tension and debate are largely left to be blotted out by an ever-expanding economic and material glut. The relationship replacing this social contract will be more reciprocal and less universal, the loosening dominion of centralised bodies will bring serious challenges that could lead down dark paths, but could also open up untold opportunities for the exploration of more reciprocal and democratic social systems.
[This article is part of The Ecology of Revolution series.]
Teaser photo credit: View of the Megaron of the palace at Tiryns, one of the many Greek palaces destroyed during the Bronze Age Collapse. By Václav Moravec – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48995994