Out from Emergency

Out from Emergency

Today’s crises call on humanity to act collectively, but this possibility seems more and more remote. How do we break the cycle? A dialogue.

The Delhi Faridabad Skyway, India, 2011 (Tahir Hashmi / Flickr)

In this exchange, Katrina Forrester and Jedediah Purdy develop on the themes laid out in Jedediah Purdy’s “The World We’ve Built.” This exchange originally took place at the Sovereignty, Economy and Global Histories of Natural Resources Symposium in December 2017 at the University of Cambridge, organized by Tehila Sasson.

Katrina Forrester: Jedediah Purdy paints a compelling picture of our current moment. Nature, he says, is submerged by the world we have made. We are what Purdy calls “an infrastructure species,” and we have remade the planet as “an integrated piece of global infrastructure”—a Sovereign of our own making, a global Leviathan that binds our actions.

That infrastructure is a constraint on meaningful change. The slow-motion climate crisis—we might also say the slow-motion crisis of capitalism, or democracy, take your pick—calls us to act as humanity. But meaningful institutions of humanity either do not exist, or there is no will to use them. Humanity does not act as a collective agent.

Purdy’s infrastructure Leviathan, in other words, propels us in the wrong direction, towards our doom. It includes not only the tar sands and roads, the concrete and fiber-optic world, but also laws and deregulated markets: the material and immaterial, ecological and ideological forms of domination and constraint.

This is a grim picture. But the good news, in Purdy’s view, is that we are more than just an infrastructure species—we are a political one. In our capacity for creation, we are all equal. Yet what can that fundamental equality mean in the unequal infrastructure that men—mostly white, powerful men—have made? We can only make that equality meaningful if we can break the cycle—within which the infrastructure shapes our wants and desires, and we continue to give it life.

The other good news, Purdy says, is that states, under democratic control, can do that, and can go some way to making that fundamental equality real. We need to trust in states to act, and constrain state action with resources of our own—political resources rather than natural ones: principles of distribution, of common ownership rather than mere humanity, which attend to the fact that we share the planet with other species. We—the democratic sovereign, presumably nationally bounded—ought to be sovereign over our common nature, and common infrastructure. It has been unequally created, unequally distributed, but it rightfully, eventually, should belong to all of us.


This is an appealing theoretical framework. How does it play out? On the one hand, post-2008, the role of the state seems up for grabs. Claims about what the state should do in the name of the economy, to govern and regulate capitalism, are back on both left and right. In certain left circles, what we might call a Hobbesian democratic socialism is on the rise. On the other hand, climate change has been displaced by more immediate concerns. The international regime built over the last decades to deal with it has failed, and optimism about solutions has been swept away by critiques of elites, technocracies, globalism. In that context, what is the relationship between Purdy’s diagnosis and his prescription? The state is what he says we need to tame the global infrastructural Leviathan he describes. But the state appears as something like a deus ex machina—that is, something very much like what Hobbes imagined in his Leviathan. What does it mean to bring the state back in, at this particular political moment where claims of state sovereignty are resurgent in leftist politics and climate change is on the backburner?

To get at that broader question, I want to start off by asking you, Jed, about how a now commonplace observation about the politics of climate change fits into your vision. The appeal to climate change is meant to introduce urgency into any political calculus. In practice, it has had a paradoxical effect. Climate change produces justifications for emergency action, but also for inaction: we know we are in crisis, but we also know that this one is in slow motion. So the appeal to climate change leaves us somewhat stranded. Even the environmental movement has given up the language of “climate emergency.” We have other emergencies now, it feels like every day.

You don’t talk too much about climate change or emergencies, but I assume you think action is pretty urgent. If we take seriously that there is a slow-motion catastrophe unfolding that is born of, predicated on, and exacerbated by the distribution of rights to nature, how does that understanding of time change the political approach you outline?

Purdy: A very simple way of putting it is that we don’t have time to wait.

What I’ve been trying to lay out is a combination of highly realistic argument, on the one hand, and realistic utopianism, on the other. The first part has to do with how heavily the infrastructure Leviathan presses down on our lives, how sharply it constrains our choices. It works as a kind of material fate, if I can put it that way. The utopianism is in the sketch of a democratic world. It’s a realistic utopianism because we wouldn’t have to change some fixed qualities in human nature to achieve it, or overcome physical laws. We’d just need different institutions and different cultures.

We could live with that. Change takes time. Politics takes time. But we don’t have time—or, at least, the cost of time is very high now, as measured in ecological damage and human suffering and death. Intensifying climate change is a byproduct of the infrastructure Leviathan’s going on as it is. And it isn’t just climate change, of course. That term is almost a stand-in now for a rolling series of ecological crises that are coming at us: extinction, toxicity, soil exhaustion, plus potential disasters that are not usually foremost in our mind when we say “climate change,” like the acidification of oceans, which could destroy huge parts of the global food web and affect other global cycles.

So, yes, this is very hard. An ongoing, accelerating catastrophe affects everything else we do. It makes our starting problem worse, and it raises the stakes of our response—and speeds them up.

Forrester: You say that tech fixes—what you call “the hack,” which embodies the dramatic, individual agency of great men—are a kind of agency fitting to the infrastructure Leviathan. That overbearing structure makes it appear that collective forms of control are a thing of the past. Only the hack seems to be able to effect change—but rarely the change we want. How do we get out of that bind, where the only action that seems possible is the kind of action that perpetuates the conditions causing the crisis? Your answer is to discipline the hack with the power of collective control. But you also want to reimagine our world so that other kinds of agency become possible—so the hack seems like part of the problem rather than the only possible answer. Is that what you’re trying to do with the idea of the infrastructure Leviathan? Is it a way of changing the conversation?

Purdy: Yes, this is exactly right. Obviously technology has to be a key to response—and will be, quite inevitably. But I think the idealizing of the hack, which is very much the spirit of the time, is a symptom of being trapped in the infrastructure Leviathan. It expresses recognition of something real—that it’s hard, or impossible, to engage our situation more directly, deliberately, and collectively. It’s a very disempowering kind of empowerment, the hack, because as far as most of us are concerned, it’s something that is done to us. That’s what I was getting at in comparing it to divine intervention that one might pray to receive. I’m not sure whether the hacker is even a “great man” in the old sense. He’s more of a trickster. He rearranges the furniture of the world behind us while we aren’t paying attention.

It’s worth reemphasizing a dismaying fact: people who hope to be saved by the hack may be right, at the moment, that this is our best option. What political engagement aims to do is to change our options.

Forrester: The vision at the heart of this talk is of a radical democratic Hobbesian state. I suspect you think there are also more recent forms of politics, actual precedents rather than imagined ones, that we might look to for the kind of social-democratic or socialist public control necessary to break the grip of the infrastructure Leviathan—both domestic and international. One model that has gotten renewed attention lately are the set of proposals put forward in the 1970s for the New International Economic Order, and the attempts to transform global capitalism and redistribute the management of natural resources that historians today are excited about recovering.

It’s easy to see that moment as a turning point where all sorts of alternative possibilities were foreclosed. It was then that an era of welfare states and postcolonial claims to sovereignty gave way to various forms of neoliberalism and individualism. It was then that collective forms of control and regulation gave way to human rights and humanitarianism, and also then that ideologies of resource control gave way to their financialization, and so on. We have recently seen the return of sovereigntist nationalisms—with the migration crises and abuses their first consequence, and purported cause. Though economic nationalism has also been reasserted, the collective right to natural resources has not much been claimed by the left. The kinds of control over natural resources that are so central to our global infrastructure aren’t really up for grabs in the same way. In a sense, the corporations won that fight. It’s also hard to squeeze climate change into the older political frame of natural resources, economies, and states. What might the battles of state control over natural resources—oil, and food, and water—look like today and in the future shaped by climate change? And how, again, might an older vision of global redistribution, or an anticolonial politics of state sovereignty over natural resources, relate to climate politics?

Purdy: I’m afraid I agree again with a lot of the diagnosis. There were various moments in the twentieth century, notably that of the NIEO (on which I don’t claim to be expert, though I have read some of the recent accounts of it), when distribution and control of resources seemed a much more open question than it does now. The NIEO strikes me as an effort to define the emerging postcolonial order along broadly social-democratic (or even democratic-socialist) lines, at precisely the time when the former colonial powers were taking the neoliberal turn. Now the world’s resources are tied up in a series of bonds of ownership and contractual and sovereign obligations that makes their redistribution feel much more distant than it might have back then.

The clearest lesson, which holds now as it did then, is that to rearrange international order in an egalitarian way, you need an egalitarian and internationally oriented domestic politics in the richest and most powerful countries. Otherwise, your best-laid plans can be scuttled by something like what happened then—the neoliberal revolt of capital, the crushing of the labor unions, the turn to the construction of the current international regime of relatively free flow of goods, services, and capital, but not people. Today’s nationalist revolts, most notably the catastrophe in the United States, are another body blow to progressive internationalist aspirations. Ironically, they are directed in part against some of the pieties of the neoliberal order—although certainly not in any constructive or progressive direction.

Forrester: Do you think climate change can provide the basis for a progressive internationalism? Clearly, the cosmopolitan humanitarian form that environmentalist internationalism has so far taken isn’t enough. You sound more hopeful about building a democratic national politics, in which emissions are reduced as a side effect of curbing economic concentrations of power, and internationalism is a byproduct of democratic sovereignty. But don’t we also need a robust internationalism? It seems to me that’s where your discourse of common ownership comes in—or maybe an account of common exploitation by the infrastructure Leviathan, or extractive capitalism.

Purdy: I think the observation is very good, if disheartening. The fact that climate change is a global problem doesn’t mean that it contains the seeds of international cooperation. The atmosphere isn’t actually a medium of collaboration—unlike, say, the Coal and Steel Community that helped to seed the European Union after the Second World War. Yes, it intensifies risks that overlap national borders and interests and are partly shared, if distributed vastly differently. But the world has always been a source of threats and disruptions, from plagues to droughts to earthquakes to floods. That has not been, per se, a basis of political coordination.

The remarkable thing about the last century is that so many people in the rich countries were able to forget for a while that the earth is sometimes our mortal enemy, to imagine the natural world as a peaceful and stable backdrop to our lives—the blue marble floating peacefully in space. In fact, modern environmentalism, and what we think of as environmental thought, emerged in the rich countries against exactly these conditions, a world that was not trying to kill us, that could be recharacterized as itself a victim of our harm. Now we are seeing, among other things, how anomalous that situation was. But being thrown back toward the historical baseline of a hazardous world doesn’t yet give us a basis for cooperation. And the current trajectory of investment and profit-taking will continue to set the agenda for that hazardous world unless it is deliberately replaced by something else.

Forrester: Let’s move on to your primary intellectual territory, law. The “world-making,” “sovereignty-producing” force of law is everywhere visible in the history of capitalism, of empire, of the environment—whether concession law, the law of the sea, property rights regimes. Could you talk a little more about the place of law, both domestic and international, in your account of sovereign nature? For anti-statists, the purpose of law is to constrain state power in the name of individual, constitutional rights, private action and ownership, capital mobility. But law can also be the handmaiden of a powerful democratic state, and I wondered whether you could describe in a bit more detail how you envisage the function of law in that context.

Do you envisage public utilities law, antitrust law, law more broadly as the regulatory mechanism for breaking down concentrations of private power? It’s sometimes hard to imagine what exactly bringing the state back in means when the state you’re primarily imagining is the American administrative state, with its peculiar private/public nature, that has privatized so many of the traditional functions of a democratic state (and has used the mechanisms of law to do so). What kinds of laws do we need to make natural resources common, internationally as much as nationally, given not only the ways in which international legal regimes have inherited the inequalities of older colonial and semi-colonial laws but the way that access to resources globally is so much a privatized corporate affair? What are the mechanisms by which those laws for accessing resources, domestically and internationally, can be made democratic?

Purdy: You’re right, the law has been a very important ideological and institutional arena for anti-statists, whose idea of making certain principles of contract, property, and adjudication universal—the constraining water that the state swims in—is nicely captured in Friedrich Hayek’s writing on law, and in Quinn Slobodian’s recent study of neoliberal international economic order, Globalists. The ideological trick is to establish those particular market-making legal as universal, unvarying, even natural. The institutional trick is then to put them into effect everywhere, or in as many places, so that they might as well be universal. Then they become just what law, or “the rule of law,” is.

But it isn’t just Hayekians. Much of legal thought and practice, at least in the United States, and I think also in Europe, has tended to an intellectual and institutional division of labor with the following logic. Constitutional and “public” law focuses on personal rights and liberties, usually emphasizing classically liberal kinds of formal rights. “Private” law, the law of the economy, focuses on coordinating market relations to achieve the form of efficiency approximated by wealth-maximization. What’s obscured in this arrangement is precisely what you might think most important: that ideas like human rights and democracy are only viable in practice given certain kinds of economic security, certain ways of governing and checking “private” economic power, certain kinds of social investment in institutions like universities and other material and cultural infrastructure. And by the same token, “private” law is deeply infused with political, “public” values. For instance, antitrust law, which has recently been recast as simply about achieving consumer welfare, needs to be thought of in its original terms, as a quasi-constitutional aspect of the structure of power in a polity. Similarly labor law: the “labor market” isn’t just about productively pairing human capital with jobs. It’s about work that is dignifying or degrading, that accustoms people to self-rule or to knuckling under. Unions are not just a special-interest group and barrier to labor-market efficiency, but centers of power that are essential in letting working people advocate for their own interests, in the workplace and in more formal politics.

So there are ways of thinking about and using law that are much more promising in building up what I would think of as a democratic political economy than the ones that have recently been ascendant.

Forrester: I want to ask you a couple of questions about what political theorists tend to think of as the fundamental institutions or agents of modern politics: states, markets, corporations. You talked about states and markets as the way humans coordinate action. I know you don’t want to overstress the dichotomy. But I wonder if you could go even further by de-centering markets. It has long been a strategy of the right to appeal to the “naturalness” of markets. But markets are, as you say, artificial too—they are produced by politics. For a long time, the left has downplayed that fact. It is an often-overlooked triumph of neoliberalism that its critics came to focus on the moral limits to markets, the commodification of life, the encroachment of markets onto the moral, the intimate, the personal—and not on other things. The critique of marketization took humanitarian, communitarian, and ecological forms. In most of them, the state got lost. For all these were themselves varieties of anti-statism. We are now living with the failure of those critiques—their failure, in your terms, to stop the build-up of the infrastructure Leviathan. The rhetoric of market fundamentalism and anti-statism led us to misread the importance of the state to neoliberalism, in both theory and practice.

If what we need today is a statist leftist politics, what should our target be? If not the market—corporate power, capitalism? Your infrastructure Leviathan, following Hobbes, emphasizes the artificial. Does it therefore go beyond the dichotomy of states and markets, so that choosing one doesn’t mean rejecting the other?

Purdy: I like this point a lot. By the 1970s, if not earlier, a lot of the New Left in the rich countries had turned to an essentially conservative and moralized criticism of markets—a criticism of commodification, of abstraction, of the moral status of the profit motive. These are themes more or less directly drawn from nineteenth-century Romanticism. And, ironically, they turned out to be themes that the capitalist market found particularly easy to absorb and repackage—as consumer options. In this way, you could say, the triumph of Whole Foods, and its absorption by Amazon, is the revealing consummation of this whole attempt to re-moralize economic life on the level of individual choices and attitudes.

To my mind, a successful democratic society would never be without markets. It would probably have lots of markets, with various parameters and constraints—just like the actual markets we have now. They would be recognized as key tools of public policy, always legally constituted and dependent on political choices. (They would also be recognized as not the most interesting policy tools.) The question would not, do we have markets, but who has power?

Forrester: Setting aside markets, then, let’s go back to states and corporations. We might understand the story of twentieth-century ideology as a transition between two world views. At the start, the two main units of politics were states and corporations. By the century’s end, they were corporations and individuals. Today, though the future likely belongs to Facebook, novel pairings of states and corporations are highly visible. Often this represents anything but the reassertion of social-democratic, or democratic-socialist, politics—think the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. What does that—and what does the persistence of the corporation—mean for taming the infrastructural Leviathan? Are corporations just another part of it that need to be broken by the state, as we bring private charters under public control and nationalize the platforms? What are we to make of the fact that corporations are the forms of political artifice that have done best out of our global infrastructure? How can the hold of corporate agency, particularly in the realm of natural resources, be broken, if our individual agency has been—on your account—so shaped by the infrastructure we’ve created?

In short, where do we put our energies? If the vision you want to challenge is the vision where the only kind of agency that’s possible is the individualistic hack, can you say something more about the intermediary collective agents—unions, parties—that in fact make up our infrastructure, and how they might serve to tame it?

Purdy: This brings us back to your opening questions: What is to be done, and who will do it? The disheartening thing is that the points you’ve raised, which for me have a powerful orienting clarity, soon lead us into dilemmas that are hard to see our way around. In fact, we run into something like antinomies, of which I can see three in particular:

  1. The Antinomy of Limits

We need an account of limits, and consequently an account of distribution, but there is no site of collective judgment that many of us would trust to make that judgment. If there were, there would still be no one who could make those judgments stick. So limits are both ecologically necessary and politically unachievable.

And in an insecure and unequal world where everyone is trying to get theirs, imposing personal limits on consumption or accumulation is either an extraordinary feat of virtue or a privilege of those who already are extraordinarily secure. This is why I think there are affinities between social democracy and ecological sanity, and between neoliberalism and ecological disaster: pervasive, mandatory social-economic insecurity means (almost) no one has enough to be safe, which is, you might say, the micro-economics of personal decisions that drives the macro-economics in which growth is a requirement of political stability and legitimacy.

  1. The Antinomy of Sovereignty

So we need forms of territorial sovereignty that can make those stick—but those are occupied by “populists,” these grotesque impresarios of denialism, like the American president. Territorial sovereignty at present both reinforces structures of global inequality and represents a major, necessary part of the way forward from it. The people who control many states, notably the United States, have no interest in the state’s constructive, transformative potential, and a great deal of interest in its serving as an emblem of world-straddling pride, chest-beating collective identity, and sadism like the separation of families at the U.S. border. People of conscience end up being, de facto, against territorial sovereignty—in the form of borders, in the form of nationalism—because they encounter it mainly as a vehicle of this kind of politics. Why would you not oppose that and all its works? But in the name of what would they oppose it?

  1. The Antinomy of the Realist

Seeing the state as a site of actually adequate responses to the present crises has, ironically, the cast of an intensely utopian view right now. When I talk about the necessity of the state to friends who spend their days trying to persuade churches to give sanctuary to immigrants facing expulsion, or fighting against racist and classist incarceration systems, I sometimes feel like one of those Catholics who want to tell you what a great thing for humanity a Universal Church could be. Like, okay, guy, the world in your head sounds like it has some good points; but, dude, it’s in your head. I think I’ve made the case that there’s no way out without the state. But that doesn’t mean there’s a way out with the state. And meanwhile, it’s not just that we’re running out of time; it’s also that people who actually control states are putting them to terrible uses.

So, a last thought. Trying to work out the limits of politics in advance is usually a mistake. A few years ago, the rise of Donald Trump and similar figures in the rich democratic countries would have been all but unimaginable to the certified experts of the world. So would the revival of socialism and social democracy among young people in those same countries. Sixty or seventy years earlier, by contrast, it would have seemed obvious to many observers—of whom Karl Polanyi is probably the best remembered right now—that runaway inequality, rolling economic crises, and unaccountable rulers are likely to produce a world-historical choice between some kind of richer, more social democracy, and some kind of ethno-nationalist barbarism. And here we are.

Wherever we are, we have to be trying to build the kinds of polities that could possibly be adequate to these linked themes: the fate of human self-rule and the fate of the earth. If we don’t build kinds of politics that can break the antinomies, they will break us.

Katrina Forrester teaches at Harvard. Her most recent book is Nature, Action and the Future: Political Thought and the Environment, coedited with Sophie Smith (Cambridge University Press, 2018). In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy (Princeton University Press) will be out next year.

Jedediah Purdy teaches at Duke and is the author, most recently, of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015). He is a member of the Dissent editorial board.

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