Monographs Neoleviathan

Neoleviathan: The Wicked and the Wretched

Introduction | Ch. 1 | Ch. 2 | Ch. 3

“If indeed there are destructive forces at play in history, it is not, or not necessarily, those that produce war. The production of war is a production of war, it is still a production. But destruction is dissimulated in the most peaceful production, death in the accumulation of wealth.”

Jean-François Lyotard

“We therefore conclude that war does not belong in the realm of arts and sciences; rather it is part of man’s social existence.”

Carl von Clausewitz

With all this gloom, we might find ourselves wanting to reach out for reasons to hope, we might find ourselves daring to ask if our problems are solvable. In their 1973 paper, Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber bluntly stated “no”—social problems are insolvable, because social problems are wicked.1Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’, Policy Sciences, 4.2 (1973), 155–69 <>. A wicked problem is a problem which is so complicated, so poorly understood, so messy, that solving it comprehensively is impossible.2In his letter introducing Rittel’s use of the term, C. West Churchman suggests that the intractability of these wicked problems produces a moral duty for social scientists to be honest and thoughtful about the fact that they can only ever offer partial “solutions”, and be upfront about the untamed aspects of the problem when relaying their solutions to decision-makers. Despite the obviousness of this point, it seems to have gone unheeded. C. West Churchman, ‘Wicked Problems’, Management Science, 14.4 (1967), B-141-B-146 <>; Rittel and Webber went on to echo this sentiment in their 1973 paper, writing: “We do not mean to personify these properties of social systems by implying malicious intent. But then, you may agree that it becomes morally objectionable for the planner to treat a wicked problem as though it were a tame one, or to tame a wicked problem prematurely, or to refuse to recognize the inherent wickedness of social problems.” Rittel and Webber, p. 160. For professionals working on “relatively easy problems” like paving the streets or supplying clean water to every domicile and every office, it was a matter of adopting a Newtonian-mechanistic mindset and asking how a system can be made more efficient. But when we turn to problems of equity and of interlocking systems where changes at one node have consequences for the network, we find problems that, as Rittel and Webber put it, science has not developed to handle. For the scientifically-minded professional problem-solver, three matters stand in the way of tackling wicked problems:

  1. Goal Formulation: Instead of asking what a system is made of, we ask what a system does, and what it ought to do. Unless you have been living under a rock, it should be no surprise to you how thorny an issue this is. For goals to be set, philosophical and ethical questions need to be decided upon. Priorities need to be set. Purposes need to be clarified. The struggle over the Political which Schmitt describes so well is nothing less than the struggle to formulate goals. And so it is really no surprise that the liberal-democratic order is quite capable of solving “easy problems”, while struggling to answer the big questions.
  2. Problem definition: Before social planning (“the process of designing problem-solutions that might be installed and operated cheaply”) started to concern itself with asking what the right thing to do is, it asked itself what the most efficient way of doing something was. This search for efficiency, drawn (say Rittel and Webber) from classical physics and economics, engendered incredible productivity when solving problems around which there was a consensus.  Technique, as Jacques Ellul would say, is characterised by the search for greater efficiency,3Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, trans. by John Wilkinson (New York: Random House, 1964), p. 20. and our technological societies are ones in which technique has become all-pervasive and hegemonic. Pushback to this comes from the living, breathing human beings whose happiness, dignity, or even mere philosophical sensibilities, are left out of consideration by the technical balancing of inputs and outputs. Technique can tell us how something ought to be done; it cannot tell us what we ought to do. And what we ought to do does not concern only the goals we set, but the very possibility of knowing what the problem is, and where it comes from. Our societies have long been committed to a war on drugs, and have largely decided that the problem is the consumption of drugs full-stop. But where the “problem” comes from is another issue—typically, conservatives will tend to blame this on moral degeneracy, family breakdown, corrupting media influence, etc. Taking the broad view, people on the left will tend to “blame” this (if they consider drug use a serious issue) on poverty, victimisation by criminals who have been allowed to acquire power through being pushed underground, and so on. While the truth may seem obvious to you, the next question Rittel and Webber ask is—now that you “know” where the problem comes from, how do you close the gap? The conservatives, who have the upper hand in most countries, have decided imprisonment and stigma will win the war. They don’t seem to have won yet.
  3. Equity issues: In many ways, this overlaps with goal formulation. There is no objective definition of equity, and therefore there is no way of quantifying scientifically what outcomes are desirable. Or to put it in a less abstract way, there is no way of ensuring agreement across multiple goal formulations. If different private interest groups have determined that only their specific policy prescriptions can constitute justice, while there is (necessarily) no way of objectively justifying agreement with one prescription over another, the question of equity looms over social planning just as much as goal formulation and problem-definition.

In consequence, the problems of governmental planning, which rely on subjective definition, political judgment, and moral position-taking, are wicked, and can never be solved, only resolved—“over and over again.”

Like any state, a Neoleviathan has many wicked problems to deal with though, by its nature, it is unlikely to give much of a shit about equity, and more likely to treat its subjects as if they are exchangeable units in a Newtonian schema, as Robinson-Particles, as Gilles Châtelet called it,4Gilles Châtelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs: The Incitement of Envy and Boredom in Market Democracies, Paperback (London: Urbanomic, 2014). units that can be subject to the discipline of the military and the rationality of the market without paying much mind to their so-called “individuality”. But, to make matters worse, any state existing today has a “super wicked” problem to consider: climate change. A super wicked problem is characterised by its time-sensitive nature, the attempt problem-causers make to find “solutions”, the lack of a central authority (remind you of anybody?), and policy responses which dismiss and ignore the future.5Kelly Levin and others, ‘Overcoming the Tragedy of Super Wicked Problems: Constraining Our Future Selves to Ameliorate Global Climate Change’, Policy Sciences, 45.2 (2012), 123–52 <>. And it is precisely in considering the super wicked problem that they are facing that we see the first steps towards the age of the Neoleviathans.

See, it’s tempting to dismiss the Neoleviathan as the ghoulish imagining of a storyteller, a dystopian science-fiction concept peddled as a possibility by someone who doesn’t know any better, but the truth is, if it’s a fiction, it’s one which the governments of today are already taking quite seriously, and which they’re strongly considering bringing into being before their enemies do, before the conditions for universal leviathanisation have properly arrived. In other words, they’re getting a head start.

Leviathanisation is, broadly, the transformative process by which the Neoleviathans are brought into being. The state which starts off down the road of leviathanisation is not necessarily the state (or states) which come out at the other end. That is to say, a standard, run-of-the-mill imperialist nation state like the UK, my exemplar state in this chapter, is capable of leviathanising, even though it is not itself a Neoleviathan yet, and may never be one. It is worth recapping that the Neoleviathan is defined as much by its internal activity as its external context. That is, a Neoleviathan is a Neoleviathan amongst Neoleviathans. “World order” as we know it disintegrates, letting loose in the developed world the sort of violence that, right now, it mostly just exports. The correct term for a Neoleviathan amongst leviathans is “proto-Neoleviathan”, which we will have plenty of time to discuss in another chapter. For now, though, let’s skip the taxonomy.

The UK is experiencing anxieties (long overdue) about its ability to underline its international “leadership” role with hard power. These are the words of Tobias Ellwood MP, January 2020: “[A]s global threats become more diverse and complex and our international rules-based order continues to erode, the world is responding by becoming more protectionist, isolationist and populist – hesitant to defend or upgrade that rules-based order. A resurgent Russia, an unpredictable Iran, extremism, creeping authoritarianism, cyber conflict and the geo-political consequences of climate change will dominate the 2020s. Though they could all be overshadowed by a bigger challenge – namely the authoritarian rise of China, which will soon overtake the United States as the world’s dominant power.”6‘The UK Must Prepare for a Dangerous Decade and Seek a More Influential Role’ <> [accessed 19 September 2020]. Ellwood stresses that what is most critical for the British government as it conducts its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy is that it be honest about the state of the armed forces, its procurement processes, its readiness and its resilience. After all, setting the security and military policy goals of a deeply politically divided country is nothing if not a wicked problem, and, as we know, you can’t tackle a problem if you don’t know what you’re working with.

Elected Chair of the Defence Committee later that month, Ellwood struck a similar tone by noting the UK kids itself that it is better prepared for the coming decade than it really is. What is required is total overhaul: investment in cybersecurity, space defence, land and naval assets, extended soft and hard power capabilities, with a movement away from punitive conflict—“[I]f China were to take over Taiwan, would we really plow in and start something much bigger by trying to unpick that when the alternative is denial?” In order to avoid pusillanimous and cowardly retreat from international provocation, Ellwood advocates a military posture of presence. “The power to hurt is most successful when held in reserve,” as the economist Thomas Schelling said.7T C Schelling and A M Slaughter, Arms and Influence, Veritas Paperbacks (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), p. 3. This coercive diplomatic technique requires the exposition of a clear and unavoidable connection between the unwanted act and the brutal retaliation. But the important fact is that if the retaliation ever becomes necessary, then the gambit has failed, and you simply weren’t present enough.

To properly modulate presence, foreign policy has to be factored into the defence review for the first time—denying space to adversaries, ensuring access to markets in sensitive areas, keeping shipping routes safe, and so on. An obvious truth is recognised: the dreams of British importance on the world stage are utterly pointless without the military power to underline it. Sentimentality in procurement gives way to purely economic considerations: “We’re keeping alive tiny little procurement programmes, not for the benefit of the user, but for the benefit of the builder and that I think needs to change.”8‘Q&A: Tobias Ellwood, Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee’ <> [accessed 8 October 2020]. Ellwood suggests the implementation of NATO standards, such as the production of a NATO standard helicopter, in order to spread the costs of development and keep up with the competition. In other words, Ellwood invites technique into military planning, exemplifying the Newtonian-mechanistic view that Rittel and Webber said belonged to the past. And such amoral considerations do belong to the past, don’t they? But leviathanisation isn’t afraid of atavism.

We may, therefore, introduce a first principle of leviathanisation: maximal efficiency. Far from the propagandistic self-aggrandisement of the neoliberal state, this is efficiency taken seriously. Bloat is impermissible, the arms race becomes an internal motor of all decision-making. There is no room for complacency or laziness, and the liberal-democratic spectacle of optimism gives way to ruthless self-criticism. Likewise, experiments are forbidden except where the risk that failure will disrupt the overall functioning of the system is close to zero and/or the benefits of success are high. Military assets are standardised, and upgrades become modular and iterative. Essentially, expense becomes maximally productive. This does not preclude desperate measures being taken in crisis situations, in fact, it ensures it, for this notion of efficiency is always relative to its context, and the age of Neoleviathans proper is one in which chaos constantly and inevitably increases as the biosphere disintegrates. If nothing else, a leap in the dark is better than a noose and a bucket.

In Search of Strategy – The 2020 Integrated Review, a report published by the Defence Committee, begins with a dire assessment of the UK’s place in the world, and with an implicit critique of the government’s approach to the Integrated Review. Work on the review had been delayed thanks to COVID-19 at first, until the Government realised that any recovery from the pandemic would necessarily involve a decent and up-to-date understanding of the country’s security, defence, development and foreign policy. With exit from the European Union looming, and the United States retreating into isolationist gloom, with “inter-state competition and escalating international tension” on the rise, the UK has been left concerned by the ever-growing visibility of cracks in the Western “rules-based international order”. Or, to put it more cynically, the order that suits it nicely.

This is why leviathanisation is inevitable—plodding, decrepit government by unqualified and irresponsible staff can only ever lead to predation from without or disruptive anger from within. In Search of Strategy is laced with warnings to the current government, in fact. The Former Director General for Strategy MoD suggests outside experts be brought in to review policies and capabilities to “make sure that everybody stays honest.” The Prime Minister, he goes on to say, needs to be able to assign the right people to the job of making sure the Integrated Review is actually integrated, that leadership is provided to ensure strategic priorities and specialist analysis are properly integrated, and so on. It is hard to believe that somebody like Ellwood thinks Johnson and his cronies are up to the task, not least of all after the series of miserable failures that have characterised the government response to COVID-19 so far, which even led Ellwood to request management of the pandemic be delegated to the armed forces. In the future, it’s easy to imagine this won’t even be a question.

A Changing Climate: Exploring the Implications of Climate Change for UK Defence and Security, a report commissioned from RAND by the UK Ministry of Defence, represents just one of many recent documents discussing the security implications of climate change for governments around the world. In it, the authors produce a conceptual framework to support decision makers in understanding and responding to climate change. In other words, it’s a framework for driving leviathanisation specifically in relation to climate change, an attempt to deal with the super wicked problem.

Text Box: 1: Leviathanisation framework – policymakers integrate defence-agnostic and defence-specific assessments to effectively and periodically evaluate and respond to security threats presented by climate change.
Leviathanisation framework – policymakers integrate defence-agnostic and defence-specific assessments to effectively and periodically evaluate and respond to security threats presented by climate change.

Defence-specific assessments, naturally, concern the policy decisions and developments of the armed forces themselves. Defence-agnostic assessments assess the state of climate change knowledge and map existing government policy vis-à-vis climate change in order to make sure that decision-making integrates key policy decisions and developments which fall outside the immediate remit of climate change policy with the knowledge that regular monitoring of the Earth system brings. In other words, it ensures that government decisions make sense within the rapidly changing context of a warming world.

From this, we can derive a second principle of levi­athanisation: reactive sovereignty. Civilisation is thrown into a defensive stance, and while it still seeks to sustain itself, to capture and control territory, and to ensure access to resources, it does this in such a manner that hubris is replaced with caution, though this nevertheless does not prevent recklessness. Icarian expansion, that is, needless expenditure, is done away with, replaced with pragmatic or Machiavellian politics. “[R]esource shortages could lead to increased conflict and instability, requiring additional military operations. . . . [A]ccess to supply chain inputs such as minerals used for manufacturing defence equipment, platforms and components could be disrupted if extreme climate events cause damage to transport and communications infrastructure, or if violent conflict takes place in mineral-mining regions as a result of resource shortages. Disruption of supply chain inputs could have detrimental impacts on force readiness.”9Kate Cox and others, A Changing Climate: Exploring the Implications of Climate Change for UK Defence and Security (Santa Monica, 2020), pp. 10, 12 <>.

Now, no sane state would allow its supply chains to be disrupted, and so the implication is obvious: “additional military operations” is code not only for benign aid operations, but also for military excursions to ensure access to and capture of critical resources. Intranational order is maintained through the threat, if not the actuality, of international violence—there is no question of pacifistic or non-interventionist opposition in the intracollapse, because war becomes solely an extension of the immune response of the state. Clausewitz: “[W]ar is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.”10Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. & trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton Paperbacks (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 87. In noting the general tendency towards new opportunities for military fallout, a fortiori leviathanisation, we might mention the militarisation of space. Ground-to-orbit and orbit-to-orbit weapons technologies are being developed, the US—ahead of the curve—has refused to waste time negotiating a treaty limiting militarisation, and we can expect to see ever-greater tension as ever-greater wealth is spent establishing an extraterrestrial presence. It isn’t hard to imagine space warfare targeting key communications and intelligence infrastructure, let alone the placement of weapons of mass destruction in orbit. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits the latter possibility now but, to heavily paraphrase Hegel on treaties between states—so what?

In the age of the Neoleviathans, moral resistance to war becomes pointless suicidality, a will-to-nothingness, and a naïve refusal to get with the program. It won’t be tolerated, and dissenters won’t last long. Schmitt once quipped that liberalism exists only when it is possible “to answer the question ‘Christ or Barabbas?’ with a proposal to adjourn or appoint a commission of investigation.”11Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. by George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 62. But leviathanisation destroys the theological ideal of political and social life as dialectical, as one big gathering around the water cooler to shoot the shit. Leviathanisation means the return of “great politics”,12“The time for petty politics is over: the next century will bring the struggle for the domination of the earth – the compulsion to great politics.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, ed. by Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman, trans. by Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 102; §208. the termination of liberalism’s bloodless caution, and the restoration of metaphysical truth to the centre of political life. Liberalism, or institutionalised metaphysical denial,13“Liberalism, in his [Schmitt’s] view, is a metaphysical system that, because of its allegiance to rationalism, not only denies its metaphysical foundation, but institutionalizes that denial. This denial, he argues, will prove to be liberalism’s inevitable downfall.” Dyzenhaus. holds the Political aloft in a posture of aloof metastability. Leviathanisation, or political avalanche, brings the Political down to its preferred ground: Hobbesian war, with all the violence that entails—the return of the repressed, and the distribution of the social body into hospitable and hostile zones.

Here’s a sanity test: we use our leviathanisation framework to develop a policy and we see if it makes much sense. Remember, in dealing with climate change, we’re not interested in non-solutions like stopping it. Between the sunny optimism of the cognitariat and the grim pessimism of the military realists, I will opt for the latter. After all, they’re actually in some proximity to power. So when the UK’s military policy is being shaped under the assumption of a 2.3—3.5°C hotter world by 2100, I’d be willing to take that seriously, even if I hadn’t also dedicated the first chapter of this book to arguing we’re fucked.

Let’s take the issue of mineral supply chains as raised in RAND’s Changing Climate report: access to critical minerals could be disrupted by extreme weather events directly or indirectly, if violent conflict breaks out over resource shortages in mineral-mining regions. Critical minerals are used to make wind turbines, solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, electric motors, coolants for MRI scanners, LEDs, infrared detectors, medicine, missiles, laser rangefinders and guidance systems, night vision goggles—essentially everything (1) cool, and (2) strategically useful. It’s a shame, then, for the UK at least, that the UK has no policy whatsoever when it comes to the supply of rare earth metals and minerals. Not only that, but there isn’t even a specific department responsible for developing policy in this area.14Andrew Stretton and Lydia Harriss, ‘Access to Critical Materials: Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology: POST-Note Number 609’ (London: Houses of Parliament, 2019), p. 3 <> [accessed 8 October 2020]. You can see why Ellwood is so frustrated, especially as someone who emphasises the threat to the UK’s strategic interests from China, which currently dominates the rare earth metals and minerals market.15‘The UK Needs to Shore up Its Strategic Mineral Supplies | Financial Times’ <> [accessed 8 October 2020].

So then, in the language of our framework, we have identified a challenge for the MOD—continued access to supply chains in the face of climate change-related disruption—we prioritise for further action—a sensible person would agree this is a high-priority challenge if they wish for the UK to be capable of making decisions without a threat being posed to its access to strategically important materials—we identify policy actions to address challenges—for example, by investing the money needed to create an independent supply chain, likely by taking advantage of the UK’s Commonwealth relationships, and by, as Ellwood says, establishing a military presence in regions of strategic importance. Critics of this policy will call this colonialism, and they’ll be right! But the ecclesiastical critique of power is worthless to the leviathanised. The RAND report puts it dryly: “UK preparedness to deploy in response to climate-related events could become part of strategic messaging to UK and NATO allies and adversaries.”

Nothing says ‘fuck off’ quite like a few thousand guns.

When Rittel and Webber used the adjective “wicked” to describe the problems of social planning, what they meant was not that they were immoral problems, but that they were intractable—“‘malignant’ (in contrast to ‘benign’) or ‘vicious’ (like a circle) or ‘tricky’ (like a leprechaun) or ‘aggressive’ (like a lion, in contrast to the docility of a lamb).”

I might venture a little adjectival innovation of my own. Leviathanisation happens when a state or quasi-state actor takes a look around and gets a grip. It occurs when someone looks at the wicked problems wickedly, by which I don’t mean “evil”, but “nasty” (in contrast to “nice”), or “execrable” (like a curse) or “abominable” (like a snowman). Those who end up on the wrong side of the wicked are the wretched—they don’t solve problems, they have problems, and whether there are hard feelings involved or not, it doesn’t matter. The wretched may be a marginalised underclass, a political adversary, or innocents who have something the wicked want—whether by charisma or cruelty, the wicked will take what they need, and the wretched won’t be able to stop them. To the wretched, leviathanisation is a super wicked problem, and time is quickly running out.

Monographs Neoleviathan

Neoleviathan: Jurisprudence, God, Collapse

Introduction | Ch. 1 | Ch. 2 | Ch. 3

“And in case a subject be forbidden by the civil sovereign to profess some of those his opinions, upon what just ground can he disobey? Christian kings may err in deducing a consequence, but who shall judge?”

Thomas Hobbes

Neoleviathan. It’s bitter as I turn it over in my mouth. My tongue bounces around like a ricocheting bullet. The last syllable leaves my lips set back in the beginnings of a grimace. For Hobbes, the sovereign was the only possible guarantor of security and prosperity,1“[W]here there is no coercive power erected, that is, where there is no commonwealth, there is no propriety; all men having right to all things: therefore where there is no commonwealth, there nothing is unjust.” Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. by Crawford Brough Macpherson, Penguin Classics (London: Penguin Books Limited, 1985), p. 202. but the Neoleviathan is power under infinite siege, and so it guarantees nothing, not even the illusion of stability and order. It is the state in crisis, with all unnecessary functions disposed of, refusing to deny itself any technology or immorality it needs. But before we discuss its descendent, we should first discuss the Leviathan itself.

Frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, 1651

The frontispiece of Leviathan. At the head of the Sovereign there are the words of Job 41.33 from the Vulgate Bible: “Non est potestas Super Terram quae Comparetur ei.”—Nothing on earth is its equal. This is how God describes the Leviathan, a sea monster with a double coat of armour, whose scales are rows of shields so tightly knit that not even air can pass between them. With one breath it incinerates armies, it smashes iron and bronze with ease, no spear or sword can so much as tickle it, and it makes a mockery of every prideful boast of kings who presume to call themselves mighty. “No one is fierce enough to rouse it,” says the Lord. “Who then is able to stand against me?”2New International Version, Job 41.10

When Job demands that God account for the suffering put upon him, a pious man who had done no wrong but had now been reduced to nothing, he is chastised by his friends, who insist that Job must have sinned to have suffered so. But when God confronts Job, it is not with an explanation, he is not told that he is being punished or scolded for wrongdoing—instead God merely reminds Job that there can be no mediation between the sovereign and the subject, that the mighty need not explain themselves to the weak, that understanding is not owed to the wretched, that right is something the powerful arrogate to themselves, and which is unlimited across their whole domain. And God’s domain is infinite: “Everything under heaven belongs to me.”3Job 41.11 Therefore infinite suffering can be distributed without rebuke. When Job recoils in shame at this—“I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”4Job 42.6—God turns to Job’s friends and demands they make a sacrifice to Him to atone for lying about His nature. “You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.”5Job 42.8 For it was Job who disregarded the words of the consolatores onerosi6“Miserable comforters”—his three friends who insisted that God, who is good and just, would not punish Job without good reason, nor abandon him indefinitely, as long as he repent of his sin. Job 16.2 as empty, long-winded speeches. It was Job who would not accept that God’s behaviour towards him was “rational” by human standards, that there was no necessary connection between suffering and sin, between glory and piety. And this is indeed so. It is the story of the Leviathan that impresses upon Job the weakness of his position, so that he finally accepts that it is his duty to obey without question. At this point, he is rewarded with wealth, longevity, and progeny, as arbitrarily as he was afflicted with disease and a massacred family.

You can see why Hobbes would invoke the Book of Job for the frontispiece of his treatise on omnipotent government. The relationship of the powerful to the powerless is exquisitely presented here, sacralised in the discourse between God and Job. Divinity itself sanctions the use of unlimited power. And while no sovereign should seek to pretend to the power of God, for the sovereign is not immortal, it can certainly claim a parallel with Leviathan, being a composite and almost invincible body. The lesson learned by Job in his dealings with God is the same as the lesson learned by subjects in their dealings with the sovereign, which comes into being when every person contracts with one another to surrender their respective rights to self-governance to the head of a commonwealth: “This is the generation of that great leviathan, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god, to which we owe under the immortal God, our peace and defence.”7Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 227.

At a glance, then, Leviathan’s frontispiece may appear a scary but morbidly comforting provincial scene. Over the city looms the sovereign, crosier and sword in hand, representing the union of military power and moral-ecclesiastical authority. But when one notices the city, empty save for soldiers, the guarded harbour, and the ships approaching from the sea, one realises—the monstrous body of the sovereign is not there to protect the city. It is emerging from the sea to invade it.8Magnus Kristiansson and Johan Tralau, ‘Hobbes’s Hidden Monster: A New Interpretation of the Frontispiece of Leviathan’, European Journal of Political Theory, 13.3 (2014), 299–320 <>. The spikes just under the right arm are the scales or spikes of a homines marini, a man of the sea, with the lower body of a serpent or dragon, its body composed of so many mortal citizens tightly packed together like impenetrable scales—Leviathan. As this monster looms over the landscape, the crosier bisecting the sky, the great sword raised to the sun, and that gigantic, impassive face between them, one can imagine the horror of the citizens locked away in their homes. The sun is eclipsed. “Fear and trembling seized me and made all my bones shake.”9Job 42.8 This image, with the violence it promises, brings us into contact with the fear Job felt as God spoke to him out of the storm. And it reminds us that de facto sovereignty is always a question of power first, security second, and comfort dead last.

In Toward Perpetual Peace (1795), Immanuel Kant presents a series of articles which, if enacted by all states, should ensure an asymptotic movement towards everlasting stability and safety from war. The first article, that no peace settlement may contain provisions for a future war based on post-hoc information, emphasises that “peace signifies an end to all hostilities . . .”10Immanuel Kant, Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History, ed. by Pauline Kleingeld, trans. by David L Colclasure, Rethinking (New Haven: Yale University Press), p. 68 <>. Indeed, Kant even considers the adjective “perpetual” to be a suspicious pleonasm—does one not protest too much? ‘I assure you, this peace is quite perpetual,’ sounds like something you hear shortly before you’re taken out back and shot. Still, Kant’s understanding of peace as necessarily being extended in time concurs with Hobbes’ own temporal understanding of war, which consists, to him, “not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary.”11Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 186. To keep reasons for war in reserve is undignified, and arises from the false belief that honour derives from conquest and territorial capture rather than from the wellbeing of the citizenry. So says Kant.

In this condemnation of the excesses of sovereignty, Kant unmistakably echoes Job—but in his invocation of rational humanity, he echoes the consolatores onerosi. For it is from the standpoint of rational humanism that Kant is able to condemn the use of civil subjects as possessions and objects of the state to be used at will by the sovereign as abominable to reason.12“To annex a state, which, like a tree trunk, has its own roots, and thus to treat it as a graft onto another state, is to annul its existence as a moral person and to treat this moral person as a mere thing.” Kant, Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History, p. 69; See also: Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. & trans. by Allen W Wood (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 56. Sovereignty can be bargained with, or made to answer for itself, if and only if there is something to which it should be made accountable, and, more importantly, if the subjects of civil authority can set themselves up as actors by authority of a greater power. In the Hobbesean system, this is impossible. The sovereign is accountable to nobody and recognises no higher power, standing outside the law and determining what is just and unjust within the realm per se. And because the subject is the author13For Hobbes, an Actor represents an Author, who owns the words and actions of the former; the Actor acts by authority of the latter. When an act is performed by authority, this means it is done by commission or license of the author. The relationship of the subject to the sovereign is of an author to an actor. Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 218. of every sovereign act, as the sovereign is no more than the subject’s power externalised and outsourced to the sovereign by contract, there is no room for complaint in any case, no matter how much iniquity the sovereign inflicts.14Because the sovereign, by definition, protects the commonwealth and is authorised to do so by the subject, there can be no question of injury by the sovereign—that is, it is impossible for a subject to injure themselves, says Hobbes. We can speak only of mere iniquity, not injustice, since justice can exist only within a commonwealth, which exists only through the power of the sovereign. Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 232.

Kant, however, claims that by the light of natural reason any rational being can arrogate the right to accuse the sovereign, at least in principle, as reason is a legislative potency residing within all rational beings. This is no less than a revolt against Leviathan and a claim to be able to pierce its scales. For if it is possible to assume for oneself, as Kant does, the right to legislate according to natural reason, that is, the right to judge on behalf of the divine power, then no justification can be made by the sovereign to an omnipotence which neglects the proper use of reason. This is a direct attack on the Jobean divinity. And it is no mistake that in Behemoth, Hobbes’ account of the English Civil War, Hobbes begins by putting the blame squarely on the ecclesiastical sectors for their major role in corrupting the social body.15Thomas Hobbes, Behemoth Or The Long Parliament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 4–6. Specifically, they claimed to have the right to govern directly from God, to be actors by divine authority which, they claim, supersedes all base civil authority—and alignment with the latter against the former is a sin punishable by eternal damnation. Kant does not, of course, promise hellfire to the despotic sovereign, but he nonetheless claimed the same right to be able to criticise in ordine ad spiritualia—“In accordance with the spirit.”

Hobbes, being dead, was unable to answer Kant directly, but Hegel was able to well enough. On Kant’s plan for the implementation of a rational Völkerrecht (international law), Hegel simply retorts with common-sense: “This universal determination of international law therefore does not go beyond an ought-to-be, and what really happens is that relations in accordance with treaties alternate with the suspension of these relations.”16Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Outlines of the Philosophy of Right, ed. by Stephen Houlgate, trans. by T M Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 312–13. In other words, states remain in the state of nature in relation to each other, as the first principle of the possibility of relations between states at all is that they retain their sovereignty. The choice to restrict said sovereignty in the name of a peaceful international order is thus always subject to cancellation. You can, by all means, make the first article of your peace treaty be that the treaty cannot be cancelled, but the moment the treaty is cancelled, that article no longer applies. Particular sovereign wills infect the Völkerrecht with contingency, and disharmony can only ever be settled, in the final case, by war.

So much for the international order. What about the intranational relationship between the state and the so-called rational subject?

Enter Carl Schmitt, “Crown Jurist of the Third Reich.”17Stephen F Schneck, ‘Waldemar Gurian: Rediscovered’, ed. by Ellen Thümmler, The Review of Politics, 74.4 (2020), 685–89 (p. 687) <>. As the self-styled 20th century successor to Hobbes and bitter enemy of rationalism in jurisprudence, not to mention the infamous enabler of the Nazi party’s rise to dictatorial power, it is hard to imagine a theorist better positioned to answer Kant.

For Schmitt, relativism is a brute fact. There is, essentially, no court of reason for the Kantian usurper to represent. Liberalism instantiates itself through an appeal to rationality and a defence of the right of every rational person to determine individually what they think is best. It then institutionalises this rationality in the state and produces the liberal-democratic order, while simultaneously disavowing its own ideological basis. But by denying the fundamental metaphysical basis of its claim to sovereignty, liberalism produces a political order incapable of defending itself. For what is enshrined in a democracy is the right for every private interest group to organise and attempt to capture the state apparatus. If the ruling party is liberal, it continues to perpetuate rule by water cooler. But if it is illiberal, it exercises the extant dictatorial power of the state to smash the liberal elements and revive the true nature of the political: “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.”18Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political: Expanded Edition, trans. by George Schwab, Enlarged (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 26. The liberal declines to identify the enemy, opting instead to view them as an economic competitor and an intellectual adversary.

The liberal is a good Kantian: they hope to see sound reasoning replace uncivilised violence, suspending forever the enmity implicit in the political and transforming it instead into a productive and healthy dialogue between rational subjects. In practice, however, we see that democracy actually paves the way for state capture by demagogues, and for the manipulation of the liberal subject by propaganda. It inevitably produces political disorder and civil war, because it is a fundamentally delusional political system. Kantian morality is an elaborate articulation of the idea that ‘if everyone just thought like me, everything would be fine,’ in that it seeks to justify the concept that, properly applied, reason leads to singularly inevitable conclusions. In other words, at the limit, every reasonable person thinks like Kant. Kantian jurisprudence is nothing more and nothing less than political solipsism. And by the time Kantianism has made its way from 18th century Königsberg to infest the inside of your skull, you are left convinced that if everyone just thought like you, everything would be fine. The homo-homini-homo eschatology19“A man is a man to a man.” Carl Schmitt, Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of Any Political Theology, trans. by Michael Hoelzl and Graham Ward (Wiley, 2008), p. 54. of the progressive society is necessarily hopeful—it hopes for the day that everyone comes together in agreement, as enlightened subjects, perfectly rational, bound together in perpetual peace. But the truth of the Book of Job is that this is, quite simply, not the nature of political authority, not the nature of power, and that to attempt to make it so is not only an incredible hubris based on a lie, but, to Hobbes, and to his successor Schmitt, the basis for an unravelling of the very possibility of societal peace.

Still, what would a Nazi like Carl Schmitt know about peace? On one hand, Schmitt viewed the Hobbesian solution as the only possible bulwark against social chaos. But he denied the rational basis for absolute sovereignty that Hobbes employed. In fact, he viewed Hobbes’ decision to allow the subject’s individuality to enter his system at all as a dire mistake, one that would lead inevitably to the bourgeois liberal-democratic state, that is, to institutionalised unseriousness about politics, engendering social chaos.20David Dyzenhaus, ‘“Now the Machine Runs Itself”: Carl Schmiit on Hobbes and Kelsen’, Cardozo Law Review, 16 (1994), p. 2. What is required is not rational justification at any level. Political authority is established through a leap of faith. Essentially, the right to legislate comes through the right to legislate, which is nothing more than power’s autopoiesis. This existentialist component of Schmitt’s thought emerges also in his abhorrence of the depoliticised world. A value-free world is one without existential meaning. The ability to die for something is, to Schmitt, what makes somebody fundamentally human, what makes morality possible at all. And this question of morality is what brings us, at long last, to the Neoleviathan’s ultimate negation of all of the above.

What is present in all of the theorists discussed so far is a certain reverence for the notion of meaning. For Hobbes, culture, meaning, justice, and progress are only possible through the authority of the Leviathan. For Kant, the moral law within—that is, reason—provides the basis for social life. Hegel gives a central place to recognition, and Schmitt hides a romantic existentialism behind his cold veneer. But leviathanisation unleashes Darwinism across the social body—natural selection is valueless and non-agental, it has no telos, no end, no purpose. And one should never forget that it is only by a manner of speaking that one says the heart pumps to circulate blood around the body, or that the sun fuses hydrogen into helium to warm the surface of the Earth. In reality, purposes have no place in nature at all. They are a fiction we add to processes which occur without conscious direction. The Neoleviathan may claim to have some greater purpose, but its only purpose is self-preservation, and it wastes no resources which could otherwise be put to that singular use. Where the Hobbesian Leviathan produces the conditions for civilised life, the Neoleviathan takes civilised life hostage and liquidates it. Political power once again becomes absolute but existential meaning is humiliated by the collapsing biosphere. There are no heroics to be performed. And indeed, life is not even tragic.

The Leviathan gracing Hobbes’ frontispiece invades for a reason, and once it has established itself, it upholds authority and civil norms. It is absolute power with a human face. But the Neoleviathan invades for no human reason at all, only out of desperation. Its body is composed of cybernetised and insignificant modes, its face is masked, only those blood red eyes look out into the ravaged landscape. Nothing on earth is its equal. It reaches down into the emptied city to look for the final rotting scraps. It scoops up clods of cracked earth to find the supplies hidden underneath, and smears the crater with the guerrilla’s blood. There is no longer any need for the timewasting scholastics of political justification. Authority just is Hobbesian, that is, Jobean, that is, absolute and divine. But leviathanisation pulls back the liberal mask, claws away the impassive face, and reveals nothing, abyss, void, before covering itself with the garb required to survive the crisis to the bitter end.

The Neoleviathan begins to stalk the rapidly emptying plains.

“Nothing on earth is its equal—a creature without fear. It looks down on all that are haughty; it is king over all that are proud.”21Job 42.8

Monographs Neoleviathan

Neoleviathan: Just How Bad Things Are

Introduction | Ch. 1 | Ch. 2 | Ch. 3

“There are no more than two or three crimes to commit in the world,’ said Curval. ‘Once those are done there is no more to be said – what remains is inferior and one no longer feels a thing. How many times, good God, have I not wished it were possible to attack the sun, to deprive the universe of it, or to use it to set the world ablaze – those would be crimes indeed, and not the little excesses in which we indulge, which do no more than metamorphose, in the course of a year, a dozen creatures into clods of earth.”

The Marquis de Sade

The depraved and misanthropic protagonists of 120 Days of Sodom spend their time inflicting evils which they know are of a vanishing significance relative to the whole of nature. Their whole lives are essentially pointless, and try as they might to conceal this through “libertinage”, they cannot help but be gripped by bouts of rage and despair at their own inadequacy. What they couldn’t imagine was that human beings could ever become powerful enough to pose a threat to non-human nature, but look at us now. Still, that we have entered the Anthropocene, the age in which humanity has become the dominant influence on the Earth system, does not necessarily imply that we are also about to enter the age of the Neoleviathans.

Really, though, it’s quite simple. You take an exhausted and crumbling international order and subject it to unbearable stress. The resulting chaos produces, by necessity, the Neoleviathans. It’s hardly rocket science, and yet, I might expect a hint of scepticism from many of my readers, hinging on the following question: ‘Why, exactly, are we heading for collapse? What reason is there to expect one? Is this not so much tinfoil hat-wearing, conspiracy theorising fearmon­gering?’

It’s a reasonable question. The answer is ‘No.’

Here’s what I can’t do. I can’t prove to you that we are, objectively, heading towards a violent civilisational collapse which will lead either to the rise of the Neoleviathans or to the total disappearance of civilised life. Nor can I prove to you that the industrial system, enthralled to the demands of capital, won’t suddenly change course and implement worldwide infrastructural changes that will restore the biosphere and prevent disaster. What I can do is give you a relatively brief survey of some of the relevant literature and walk you through my reasoning, approaching asymptotically towards the limit at which it becomes as obvious to you as it is to me which way the winds are blowing.1You are welcome, at whatever point I’ve convinced you, to skip the remainder of the chapter. If, by the end, you still aren’t convinced, I don’t know what to tell you.

2019 was either the second or third warmest year on record depending on the dataset used,2‘State of the Climate in 2019’, ed. by J Blunden and D S Arndt, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 101.8 (2020), S1–429 (p. S17) <>. with either the most warm days on record (dating back to 1950) or close behind 2016.3Blunden and Arndt, p. S28. In the same year, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg all set national temperature records over 40C, and the WMO declared July tied for the hottest month on record globally.4Blunden and Arndt, p. S29. This is all likely attributable to a combination of natural variability and the upward trend in temperatures.5Blunden and Arndt, p. S25. 84% of the ocean surface experienced a marine heatwave.6Blunden and Arndt, p. S30. “[L]ake and permafrost temperatures have increased; glaciers have continued to lose mass, becoming thinner for the 32nd consecutive year, with the majority also becoming shorter during 2019. The period during which Northern Hemisphere (NH) lakes were covered in ice was seven days shorter than the 1981–2010 long-term average, based on in situ phenological records. There were fewer cool extremes and more warm extremes on land; regions including Europe, Japan, Pakistan, and India all experienced heat waves.”7Blunden and Arndt, p. S17.

By identifying distinctive responses by the Earth system to astronomical forcing8The changes to climate driven by the shape of the Earth’s orbit, the position of the Earth on that orbit, and the tilt of the Earth’s axis. See: Lucas J. Lourens, ‘The Variation of the Earth’s Movements (Orbital, Tilt and Precession)’, in Climate Change (Elsevier, 2016), pp. 399–418 <>. depending on greenhouse gas concentrations and polar ice sheet volume, four distinct climate states can be defined: Hothouse, Warmhouse, Coolhouse, and Icehouse.9Thomas Westerhold and others, ‘An Astronomically Dated Record of Earth’s Climate and Its Predictability over the Last 66 Million Years’, Science, 369.6509 (2020), 1383–87 <>. Within each distinct state, climate variability due to astronomical forcing is relatively small compared with the huge changes associated with transitions from one state to another, where the climate becomes unstable. Current atmospheric CO2 concentrations suggest the Earth system is comparable to the Miocene Coolhouse, but the researchers claim that if CO2 emissions continue “unmitigated” until 2100, “Earth’s climate system will be moved abruptly from the Icehouse into the Warmhouse or even Hothouse climate state,” characterised by temperatures at least 5°C warmer than they are today.

Caveat: This assumes the RCP8.5 scenario will prevail—a scenario which was not originally intended to become the definitive “business-as-usual” scenario.10‘Explainer: The High-Emissions “RCP8.5” Global Warming Scenario’ <> [accessed 13 September 2020]. In other words, if CO2 emissions continue unmitigated, it is not necessarily the case that we will end up with the RCP8.5 scenario in 2100. However, there is good reason to take the RCP8.5 scenario seriously and to treat it as a reasonable possibility. Cumulative emissions since 2005 have thus far tracked the RCP8.5 scenario—its projections have been agreed with the actual emissions to within 1% accuracy. Projecting into the mid-century shows that the emissions expected from both a business-as-usual and a business-as-expected scenario sit between that expected in the RCP8.5 scenario and the RCP4.5 scenario—why, then, should we use RCP8.5 as our preferred near-term modelling tool? “[T]he issue of missing carbon cycle climate feedbacks is critical. These missing biotic feedbacks include permafrost thaw, changes in soil carbon dynamics, changes to forest fire frequency and severity, and spread of pests. . . . This strongly suggests that while RCP8.5 and the IEA scenarios will not—indeed, cannot—be exact analogs, choosing RCP4.5 would be a definitive underestimate of physical climate risk.”11Christopher R. Schwalm, Spencer Glendon, and Philip B. Duffy, ‘RCP8.5 Tracks Cumulative CO 2 Emissions’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117.33 (2020), 19656–57 (p. 2) <>.

Moving out to the end-of-century, the overlap between the warming outcomes expected in RCP8.5 and the warming outcomes expected under policies in place is “modest”, but there is at least a 35% chance—a considerable possibility—that emissions concentrations will exceed those assumed in the RCP8.5 scenario.12P. Christensen, K. Gillingham, and W. Nordhaus, ‘Uncertainty in Forecasts of Long-Run Economic Growth’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115.21 (2018), 5409–14 <>. “Indeed, if RCP8.5 did not exist, we’d have to create it.”13Schwalm, Glendon, and Duffy, p. 2.

Let’s talk about Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs). These are a set of five scenarios describing different socioeconomic developments, exploring how broad societal trends (inequality, regional rivalry, fossil-fuel policies, etc.) affect greenhouse gas emissions and, consequently, the state of the climate system. By bringing socioeconomic narratives into the analysis of emissions, researchers hope to be able to describe plausible scenarios under which climate change could be mitigated or adapted to.14Keywan Riahi and others, ‘The Shared Socioeconomic Pathways and Their Energy, Land Use, and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Implications: An Overview’, Global Environmental Change, 42 (2017), 153–68 (p. 153) <>. The five narratives reflect the uncertainty in what we can expect from the globally-integrated economic system, where different rates of population growth, technological progress, and economic growth can all lead to vastly different emissions and warming outcomes.

  • SSP1: “Sustainability – Taking the Green Road”—The whole world commits to a profound economic and socio-political shift, investing in education and health, reducing inequality intra- and internationally, embracing low-growth and low-resource intensity consumption, and collectively committing to preservation of the global commons and sustainable development goals.
  • SSP2: “Middle of the Road”—Socioeconomically speaking, things don’t get worse, but they don’t get better either. The world carries on as it has done historically. Inequality persists, and perfunctory efforts by global and national institutions produce slow progress towards sustainable development goals. Environmental systems are degraded but overall intensity of resource and energy use declines. Global population growth is moderate, and challenges to mitigation and adaptation remain.
  • SSP3: “Regional Rivalry – A Rocky Road”—Nationalist atavism, domestic concerns about competitiveness and security, and regional rivalries and conflicts leviathanise the situation. Countries focus on their own national and regional security, looking to achieve their own energy and food security goals at the expense of everyone else. Educational and technological development declines, consumption is resource intensive, and inequalities persist or worsen. Populations boom in developing countries.
  • SSP4: “Inequality – A Road Divided”—Huge inequality and social stratification emerges within and between countries as unequal investments in different sectors of the economy and disparities in opportunity and political power increase in lock-step with the ever-intensifying ecological crisis. On one hand, you have an internationally-connected society maintaining the knowledge and capital-intensive sectors of the global economy, and on the other, fragmented patchworks of immiserated and poorly educated states which act as labour pools for the low-tech economy. Social conflict and civil unrest escalate as social cohesion degrades. The middle and high income areas are served well with token environmental gestures, as the rest of the world is exploited or left to rot.
  • SSP5: “Fossil-fueled Development – Taking the Highway”—The accelerationist option. The world leans into the anarchy of the capitalist market, exploiting huge amounts of fossil fuels and investing in health, education, and technological progress, enabling intensive consumption and integrating the global economic system further, betting on the innovation unleashed thereby to develop technologies which will manage the social and ecological crises. Technocratic cybernetics and scientifically-enabled godplaying makes use of advanced control techniques and geoengineering to ensure the long-term stability of these new societies.

It is certainly interesting to think about future emissions and warming scenarios in terms of narratives and the interaction between civilisation and the environment. Let’s be blunt and assume that SSPs 1 and 2 are out of the question. We are obviously not going to see the entire world take the green road, and SSP2, which relies on trends not shifting “markedly” from historical patterns (meaning, presumably, from the well-integrated neoliberal order) requires SSP3 to not already be happening for it to be a plausible scenario. But SSP3 is already happening. Despite quiet hopes that 2019’s 33 gigatonnes of CO2 released marks the peak of CO2 emissions, countries such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, the USA, China, Japan have all adopted climate “targets” which aim for a 4°C (or hotter) world—despite the “historic” Paris Agreement.

There is something fundamentally ridiculous about the eco-optimists who insist on the “possibility” of serious mitigation or international collaboration, as if we don’t live in a world wherein the slightest attempt to seriously discuss climate change mitigation engenders a populist backlash: “Climate denialism on the part of the Trump presidency, which has led to the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, has been accompanied by a heated debate on the Amazon’s fires and by the unexpected rise of France’s “yellow vests” movement, the rise of which was triggered by an increase in diesel fuel taxation. There is thus a deal of resistance to sustainability, at least to the part of it that is associated with mitigation policies.”15Manuel Arias-Maldonado, ‘Sustainability in the Anthropocene: Between Extinction and Populism’, Sustainability, 12.6 (2020), 2538 (p. 4) <>. With grifters like Trump and Bolsonaro able to command huge amounts of public support as they deny and dismiss warnings about the climate, and with the general sense of grievance that the masses feel when they are lectured by these bleeding heart, cosmopolitan elites who care more about the polar bears than the average, salt of the earth, working class person, etc. etc., you do have to wonder—why exactly do these eggheads think that the average person would ever be willing to make profound sacrifices to their living standards for the sake of some abstract, far away-seeming climate “issue”?

‘Well, they’ll have to realise eventually when things get really bad that they have to make the necessary sacrifices!’—Will they now? Will it happen everywhere it needs to? Will it be sustained? Will climate change-denying populists fail to take control and reverse the gains? There is no room for failure here, no room to trip up or lose time, and yet this sustained altruistic self-sacrifice requires a historic and never-before-seen change in the behaviour of civilisations across the world, which have seen all sorts of disasters and been unable to act sensibly in the face of them. Hell, in the middle of a deadly global pandemic, millions don’t believe it exists at all, and many of those who do cannot be bothered to wear a mask. Indeed, the COVID-19 experience is giving us a taste of just how easy it is to go “off-course”, with the 2020 UN climate summit suspended until late 2021, as major economies prop up their aviation, automotive, and oil and gas industries with huge amounts of stimulus spending.16‘Coronavirus: Tracking How the World’s “Green Recovery” Plans Aim to Cut Emissions’ <> [accessed 14 September 2020]. To the optimist I say, simply, what right do you have to think that anybody will give a shit about the climate, regardless of how bad things get?

Sure, there are eco-nationalists and right-wing green populists who will argue for the conservation and protection of local and national wildlife (see: SSPs 3 and 4) but the idea that you can persuade millions of emotionally calcified westerners to give up their 4×4 and steaks, their air conditioning and smartphones and international flights and their entire way of life for the sake of some poor person they’ll never meet, scraping by on the other side of the planet, is laughable. A 2019 study by adelphi, a Berlin-based think tank, showed that with right-wing populism on the rise in Europe, seven out of 21 parties analysed denied climate change completely.17Stella Schaller and Alexander Carius, Convenient Truths: Mapping Climate Agendas of Right-Wing Populist Parties in Europe (Berlin, 2019). The media has largely been bought by reactionary interests, and Cambridge Analytica showed us just how easy it is with modern technology to manipulate the minds and beliefs of the population via Facebook and other social media websites.

Psychographics, the study of qualitative personal characteristics, is deployed as a political warfare tactic, violently escalating the Schmittian balkanisation of the Political, as the liberal believers in democracy struggle to keep up. In a situation like this, any appeals to the deep rationality or empathy of the average person, unlockable by just the right tenor of communication from the scientifically-minded sectors, can only appear as a pathetic joke.

Tropical forests, where 40% of the world’s vegetation carbon resides,18Karl-Heinz Erb and others, ‘Unexpectedly Large Impact of Forest Management and Grazing on Global Vegetation Biomass.’, Nature., 553.7686 (2018), 73–76. store about as much carbon as has been emitted as a result of fossil fuel use over the last 30 years.19Elizabeth Pennisi, ‘Tropical Forests Store Carbon despite Warming’, Science, 368.6493 (2020), 813–813 <>. It’s a shame, then, that they’re on their way out. Peak carbon uptake into intact, undisturbed tropical forests peaked in the 1990s, and by the 2010s, the average tropical forest’s ability to absorb carbon had dropped by a third, as the negative effects of higher temperatures and droughts killed off trees and slowed down growth. “The lost sink capacity in the 2010s compared to the 1990s is 21 billion tonnes carbon dioxide, equivalent to a decade of fossil fuel emissions from the UK, Germany, France and Canada combined. Overall, intact tropical forests removed 17% of human-made carbon dioxide emissions in the 1990s, reduced to just 6% in the 2010s.”20‘Tropical Forests’ Carbon Sink Is Already Rapidly Weakening’ <> [accessed 11 September 2020]. Suffice it to say this has troubling “implications”, especially since models haven’t predicted that net carbon uptake into intact tropical forests has already peaked.21Wannes Hubau and others, ‘Asynchronous Carbon Sink Saturation in African and Amazonian Tropical Forests’, Nature, 579.7797 (2020), 80–87 (p. 84) <>. “Given that the intact tropical forest carbon sink is set to end sooner than even the most pessimistic climate driven vegetation models predict, our analyses suggest that climate change impacts in the tropics may become more severe than predicted. Furthermore, the carbon balance of intact tropical forests will only stabilize once CO2 concentrations and the climate stabilizes . . . At the international level, given that tropical forests are likely to sequester less carbon in the future than Earth System Models predict, an earlier date by which to reach net zero anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions will be required to meet any given commitment to limit the global heating of Earth.”22Hubau and others, p. 85.

Let’s be clear, though. Only about 20% of tropical forests are intact.23Peter Potapov and others, ‘The Last Frontiers of Wilderness: Tracking Loss of Intact Forest Landscapes from 2000 to 2013’, Science Advances, 3.1 (2017), e1600821 <>. Generally, forest covers 30.8% of total land area, down from 32.5% in 1990, representing a net loss the size of Libya.24The State of the World’s Forests 2020 (FAO and UNEP, 2020), p. 10 <>. And as bad as deforestation is, simply avoiding further deforestation is not sufficient to mitigate climate change. Forest degradation, which has been historically difficult to detect, can cause forests to become carbon sources rather than carbon sinks—that is, the carbon emitted from the decomposition and burning of trees can outweight the carbon taken in through new tree growth. Deforestation in the Amazon gets a fair bit of attention, but research shows during the 1992-2014 period, in which 308,331 km2 of forest was deforested, 337,427 km2 was degraded.25Eraldo Aparecido Trondoli Matricardi and others, ‘Long-Term Forest Degradation Surpasses Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon’, Science, 369.6509 (2020), 1378–82 (p. 2) <>. The Amazon is rapidly headed towards the tipping point at which the whole system flips over irreversibly to a savannah state,26Thomas E. Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, ‘Amazon Tipping Point: Last Chance for Action’, Science Advances (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2019), eaba2949 <>. leading to huge carbon and biodiversity losses as the forest dries out: “The forest plays a major part in keeping itself alive, by recycling water through trees to generate rainfall. A water molecule travelling across the Amazon can fall as rain up to six times. If drought, fire or deforestation damage too many trees, reduced rainfall leads to less vegetation, and so on in a shrinking cycle.”27Ignacio Amigo, ‘When Will the Amazon Hit a Tipping Point?’, Nature (NLM (Medline), 2020), 505–7 <>. Meanwhile, Brazilian researchers publish their findings anonymously, afraid of retaliation from the Bolsonaro government, which has overseen a sharp increase in deforestation of the Amazon.28‘“Landscape of Fear” Forces Brazilian Rainforest Researchers into Anonymity | Nature Index’ <> [accessed 12 September 2020].

Overall, research suggests that the tropics are actually a net carbon source already, thanks in large part to “reductions in carbon density within standing forests (degradation or disturbance), with the latter accounting for 68.9% of overall losses.”29A. Baccini and others, ‘Tropical Forests Are a Net Carbon Source Based on Aboveground Measurements of Gain and Loss’, Science, 358.6360 (2017), 230–34 <>. The ability of tropical forests to store carbon is set to decline further as maximum daytime temperatures rise, especially at the 32.2°C thermal threshold.30Martin J P Sullivan and others, Long-Term Thermal Sensitivity of Earth’s Tropical Forests, pp. 3, 4 <>. Dr. Martin Sullivan: “[I]f we limit global average temperatures to a 2°C increase above pre-industrial levels this pushes nearly three-quarters of tropical forests above the heat threshold we identified. Any further increases in temperature will lead to rapid losses of forest carbon.” Professor Beatriz Marimon: “Each degree increase above this 32 degree threshold releases four-times as much carbon dioxide as would have been released below the threshold.”31‘Tropical Forests Can Handle the Heat, up to a Point’ <> [accessed 12 September 2020].

Global vegetation biomass currently stores just under less than half of the carbon it otherwise would if we were not (ab)-using the land,32Erb and others, p. 4. “At the global scale, the biomass stocks of the currently prevailing vegetation amount to a mean of 450 PgC . . . In contrast, biomass stocks of potential vegetation amount to a mean of 920 PgC . . .” and 42-47% of that difference is attributable to forest management and grazing practices.33Erb and others, p. 4. What this suggests is that “pre-industrial land-use impacts on biomass stocks were considerable,” and not that, as seems to be the common assumption, it was only industrial society that ushered in a time of disharmony between human and non-human nature. Consider, as well, what the difference between actual and potential biomass stocks means for climate-change mitigation: “The difference between actual and potential biomass stocks can be interpreted as the upper boundary of the carbon-sequestration potential of terrestrial vegetation . . . Managing vegetation carbon so that it reaches its current potential would store the equivalent of 50 years of carbon emissions at the current rate of 9 PgC per year, but that is not feasible, because it would mean taking all agricultural land out of production. More plausible potentials are much lower; for example, restoring used forests to 90% of their potential biomass would absorb fossil-fuel emissions for 7–12 years. However, such strategies would entail severe reductions in annual wood harvest volumes, because optimizing forest harvest reduces forest biomass compared to potential biomass stocks. By contrast, widely supported plans to substantially raise the contribution of biomass to raw material and energy supply, for example, in the context of the so-called bioeconomy, imply a need for increased harvests. From the perspective of greenhouse gas emissions, the challenge for land managers is to maintain or increase biomass productivity while at the same time maintaining or even enhancing biomass stocks.”34Erb and others, pp. 4–5.

Allow me to translate that for you: we’re fucked.

Take a deep breath, because we’re not finished. Far from it. There is far more to discuss than just tropical forests, and one thing you find when you dive down the ecological rabbit hole is that it goes deep, deeper than any one person can cover, such that any choice to move to a different aspect of the topic always involves an arbitrary cut-off. The question is not one of insufficient data, but of total institutional inertia deriving from the very nature of Darwinian life, short-sighted, adapted to ignore and vacillate at the expense of the future—why shouldn’t it be? If you’re a creature who stops to think about burning peatlands, there’s another creature who isn’t bothered about peatlands and is more than happy to tear your throat out while you stand, wide-eyed, like a deer in headlights, as the gravity of the existent glues you to the floor.

Extend this analogy to the political sphere and you’ll begin to get an idea of the problem we’re facing.

“The Arctic is burning like never before—and that’s bad news for climate change.” It’s a strange headline, isn’t it? Read enough of these and you’ll become quite tired of the editors’ attempts to sound neither “alarmist” nor indifferent, resulting in these ghoulishly hesitant headlines. As wildfires rage across the Siberian tundra, the thawing, carbon-rich peatlands catch fire and permanently lose vast amounts of ancient carbon into the atmosphere, fuelling the fires further through positive feedbacks to temperatures—this, in a region which is already warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the world.35‘Fire on Ice: Arctic Wildfires Are the New Symptom of a Warming Planet – Science in the News’ <> [accessed 12 September 2020]. By the end of August 2020, the fires in the Arctic Circle had seen 244 megatonnes of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.36Alexandra Witze, ‘The Arctic Is Burning like Never before — and That’s Bad News for Climate Change’, Nature, 2020 <>. For comparison, Egypt’s emissions for the entire year of 2017 came to about 259 megatonnes.

As with the tropical forests, further warming can take permafrost peatlands from a net sink to a net source of warming as thaw (and, of course, blazing wildfires) release carbon and nitrogen, accumulated over thousands of years, into the atmosphere—in the 2°C warming scenario, half of preindustrial permafrost peatlands is lost, with radiative forcing37The energy imbalance between energy absorbed by the Earth and energy radiated back into space. See: ‘Climate Forcing | NOAA Climate.Gov’ <> [accessed 12 September 2020]. due to the thaw peaking at 2% of that caused by human emissions next century.38Gustaf Hugelius and others, ‘Large Stocks of Peatland Carbon and Nitrogen Are Vulnerable to Permafrost Thaw’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117.34 (2020), 20438–46 <>.

The Arctic wildfires, which have set emissions records two years in a row now, have been described by Dr Thomas Smith, Assistant Professor of Environmental Geography at LSE as “alarming”, which is quite serious language when it comes to the climate. In an interview with France 24, he had this to say: “The climate is warming in the High Arctic three times faster than the rest of the planet. And what we’ve seen in this year and in 2019 as well are very unusually warm temperatures. So unusually warm that in some places the temperatures have been twenty degrees higher than the long-term average. There’s been a heatwave in Eastern Siberia that started in the late winter and continued through the spring and the summer, and what we’ve seen is unprecedented levels of fire activity in the satellite record. The carbon dioxide emissions in 2019 and 2020 put together were longer than the previous 16 years on record. . . . If the fires are becoming more frequent and more intense, and that is what the evidence suggests, it might be that the forests are not able to regenerate to their full size, or even not to a forest—it may be replaced by a grassland or a shrubland, and if that’s the case, that is a problem because the carbon dioxide released from the fires will stay in the atmosphere.” When asked if there is a regional will to help with reforesting the region, Dr Smith answers that the scale of the problem is difficult to comprehend, and that it is unfeasible for a single nation-state to be able to meaningfully mitigate the factors (that is, the destabilisation of the Earth system) driving the Arctic fires. “What we need to look at is how we can do something about the future fires in this region which can only get worse with the climate change that is locked in for the next few decades. . . . But, ultimately, to avoid larger scales in this region, especially in the forests and the tundra regions to the north, we need to be thinking about mitigating greenhouse gases now and as soon as possible, but the effects of that will only be felt by the middle of this century or even later.”39‘Arctic Wildfires Are “Only Going to Get Worse” – Perspective’ <> [accessed 12 September 2020].

You’re welcome to draw your own conclusions on how likely it is that a global agreement on serious mitigation will be reached. We haven’t seen anything yet.

According to the SWIPA 2017 report, Arctic sea ice could have largely disappeared by the late 2030s. Most of the sea ice in the Arctic is “first year” ice, meaning that it grows in the autumn and winter and melts in the spring and summer. Very little multi-year ice remains. The almost total loss of Arctic sea ice by the late 2030s is not predicted by most climate models.40AMAP, Snow, Water, Ice, Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA), 2017. The SWIPA report concludes: “[T]he Arctic will not return to previous conditions this century under the scenarios considered in the SWIPA 2017 assessment. The near-future Arctic will be a substantially different environment from that of today, and by the end of this century Arctic warming may exceed thresholds for the stability of sea ice, the Greenland ice sheet, and possibly boreal forests.” In the case of the Greenland ice sheet, there is no longer a question of “may”. More than three decades of satellite data shows that, starting from 2000, glacier retreat has switched the ice sheet over to a new dynamic state of constant, sustained mass loss, with around 500 gigatonnes lost in 2017 and 2018.41Michalea D King and others, ‘Dynamic Ice Loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet Driven by Sustained Glacier Retreat’, Communications Earth & Environment, 1.1 (2020), 1 (p. 2) <>. This new state of sustained loss will persist even if global warming stops today—even, in fact, if the climate gets a bit colder.42King and others, pp. 3, 5.

Since it is generally considered a faux pas to deliver a pessimistic prediction with no silver lining, lead study author Michalea King, when interviewed about these findings, said: “It’s always a positive thing to learn more about glacier environments, because we can only improve our predictions for how rapidly things will change in the future. And that can only help us with adaptation and mitigation strategies. The more we know, the better we can prepare.”43‘Warming Greenland Ice Sheet Passes Point of No Return: Even If the Climate Cools, Study Finds, Glaciers Will Continue to Shrink — ScienceDaily’ <> [accessed 13 September 2020].

The more we know, the better we can prepare.

This is, of course, an utterly empty banality.

We could say more about the Arctic, not least that with the Arctic’s frozen soils thawing, “by the middle to end of the century the permafrost-carbon feedback should be about equivalent to the second strongest anthropogenic source of greenhouse gases, which is land use change.”44‘Unexpected Future Boost of Methane Possible from Arctic Permafrost – Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet’ <> [accessed 12 September 2020].—but I am, frankly, tired of talking about ice. In the interests of finishing this chapter this year, I‘ll summarise a few other points of interest:

  • Sea-level rises driven by ice sheet melt are currently tracking the worst-case scenario predicted by the IPCC.45Thomas Slater, Anna E. Hogg, and Ruth Mottram, ‘Ice-Sheet Losses Track High-End Sea-Level Rise Projections’, Nature Climate Change, 2020 <>. By 2050, these rises could push chronic floods to hit the homes of 300 million people in China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand, and by the end of the century the homes of 190 million people could be permanently submerged beneath the high tide line—that is, be made uninhabitable.46Scott A. Kulp and Benjamin H. Strauss, ‘New Elevation Data Triple Estimates of Global Vulnerability to Sea-Level Rise and Coastal Flooding’, Nature Communications, 10.1 (2019), 4844 (p. 3) <>. By 2030, the annual cost of riverine and coastal flooding is expected to reach $535 billion and $177 billion, respectively, while overexploitation of groundwater causes coastal cities to subside, that is, sink, putting an additional 2 million people at risk of flooding.47‘The Number of People Affected by Floods Will Double Between 2010 and 2030’ <> [accessed 13 September 2020].
  • The animal population has declined by more than two-thirds (on average) in 50 years thanks to habitat destruction, agriculture, civilisational expansion and illegal wildlife trade. Wildlife populations in freshwater habitats have declined by 84%.48Living Planet Report 2020: Bending The Curve Of Biodiversity Loss – Summary, 2020. An extensive meta-analysis in April 2020 found terrestrial insect numbers declining by 9% per decade on average,49Roel van Klink and others, ‘Meta-Analysis Reveals Declines in Terrestrial but Increases in Freshwater Insect Abundances’, Science, 368.6489 (2020), 417 LP – 420 <>. with disturbing and obvious implications for our own continued existence on the planet, thanks largely to land-use intensification and destruction of natural habitats. The same analysis found freshwater insect numbers had increased by 15% on average, however, as lead author Dr Roel Van Klink said to the BBC, “They are just a fraction of land based insects, not more than 10%. The area of freshwater we have on earth is just a small percentage of the total land mass, so the numbers of freshwater insects will never be able to compensate for the terrestrial insects.”50‘Nature Crisis: “Insect Apocalypse” More Complicated than Thought – BBC News’ <> [accessed 14 September 2020]. Thanks to the domestication of livestock, agriculture, and the industrial revolution, human beings and their livestock now account for 96% of mammalian biomass, outweighing all vertebrates combined with the exception of fish.51Yinon M. Bar-On, Rob Phillips, and Ron Milo, ‘The Biomass Distribution on Earth’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115.25 (2018), 6506–11 (p. 6508) <>. Indeed, mirabile dictu, as the total biomass of wild mammals has decreased by a factor of 6, the total mass of mammals has increased by a factor of 4!
  • Global average atmospheric CO2 concentration in 2019 was 409.8 parts per million (ppm), having shot up from around 280 ppm at the start of the Industrial Revolution,52‘Climate Change: Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide | NOAA Climate.Gov’ <> [accessed 14 September 2020]. and having been around 250 ppm throughout human evolution. With global average CO2 concentrations set to hit the high-600s or even over 900 ppm by the end of the century, it would be quite concerning if our bodies hadn’t evolved to deal with such high concentrations, wouldn’t it? CO2 concentrations in classrooms have peak median values of over 1,000 ppm, and often 2,000 ppm, which can cause inflammation of the lungs, brain, and muscles; bone demineralisation, kidney calcification; physiological stress promoting carcinogenic effects, cellular death and accelerated aging; cognitive effects—headaches, reduced ability to problem-solve and make decisions, disrupted sleep.53Tyler A. Jacobson and others, ‘Direct Human Health Risks of Increased Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide’, Nature Sustainability, 2.8 (2019), 691–701 <>. We are regularly exposed to such concentrations: Bedrooms can exceed 2,500 ppm when doors and windows are closed and ventilation rates are low, and personal CO2 bubbles in normal office environments can average 1,200 ppm. Domes of CO2 accumulate over cities and urban centres, where atmospheric concentrations can reach 600 ppm now,54The CO2 by a busy London road already regularly exceeds 750 ppm. ‘Indoor Carbon Dioxide Levels Could Be a Health Hazard, Scientists Warn’ <> [accessed 14 September 2020]. 700ppm by the mid-century, and over 1,000 ppm in the RCP8.5 scenario. In other words, for much of your life, you are breathing air which is literally poisoning you, and this is only getting worse.

One could say more, about the irreversible decline of coral reefs, with most coral reefs in existence today due to disappear under a 1.5°C scenario,55J.E.N. Veron and others, ‘The Coral Reef Crisis: The Critical Importance Of<350ppm CO2’, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 58.10 (2009), 1428–36 <>; Hoegh-Guldberg and others, Impacts of 1.5°C Global Warming on Natural and Human Systems., Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – Special Report, 2018. about groundwater depletion worsening droughts and harming ecosystems,56Marc F P Bierkens and Yoshihide Wada, ‘Non-Renewable Groundwater Use and Groundwater Depletion: A Review’, Environmental Research Letters, 14.6 (2019), 63002 <>. with serious contamination, salinisation, and water scarcity challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa, China, India, the US and Australia,57Michael N. Fienen and Muhammad Arshad, ‘The International Scale of the Groundwater Issue’, in Integrated Groundwater Management (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2016), pp. 21–48 <>. dramatically threatening food security,58Mark W. Rosegrant, Claudia Ringler, and Tingju Zhu, ‘Water for Agriculture: Maintaining Food Security under Growing Scarcity’, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 34.1 (2009), 205–22 <>. or about temperatures so hot you sweat to death in the shade, already happening in regions across the globe, decades sooner than models predicted,59Colin Raymond, Tom Matthews, and Radley M. Horton, ‘The Emergence of Heat and Humidity Too Severe for Human Tolerance’, Science Advances, 6.19 (2020), eaaw1838 <>. and I really could continue for much longer, about the way our system of industrial livestock production acts a breeding ground for infectious diseases (such as COVID-19)60Madhur S. Dhingra and others, ‘Geographical and Historical Patterns in the Emergences of Novel Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5 and H7 Viruses in Poultry’, Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 5 (2018) <>; Is the next Pandemic on Our Plate? Our Food System, through the Lens of COVID-19, 2020 <>. or how the large-scale deployment of carbon sequestration technologies requires “reliable institutions that incentivise good governance and practice across the globe” but which need to be deployed “in regions with weak institutions”, and/or technologies that are in “an earlier stage of the innovation process” and show “substantially higher costs”,61Wim Carton and others, ‘Negative Emissions and the Long History of Carbon Removal’, WIREs Climate Change, 2020 <>. about how every mitigation measure is subject to cancellation or obstruction or simple, honest failure, about the locusts or the crop-related greenhouse gas emissions or the coming impacts on crop yields, but I think I’ve made my point.

In the end, something presses on us with an aching sense of morbid amusement. When the eco-optimist says, ‘Oh, it probably won’t be as bad as RCP8.5! We’ll likely end up with only three degrees of warming!’, they make the implicit assumption that a three-degree warmer world is one that anyone wants to live in. But look around you—really look—and tell me, with temperatures not even at 1.5°C, is this a world you want to live in? But of course, you don’t know how to die.

Incipit tragodeia.

Phew. Well, congratulations if you made it through the whole thing. In the next chapters, we’ll finally be looking at how the ecological meltdown described in this chapter produces the Neoleviathans, and how they may behave.

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Monographs Neoleviathan

Neoleviathan: A Narrative-Polemical Prelude

Introduction | Ch. 1 | Ch. 2 | Ch. 3

“They will so long blow the coals of contention, till all the world be consumed with fire.”

Robert Burton

The truth is, you couldn’t run fast enough. And even if you could, there was nowhere to go. The very few escapees who succeeded realised this soon after they got out into the desert, and returned to the complex with looks of weary resignation. They were put back to work, or were tortured to death to make an example. Depended which manager was on duty.

There was no question of revolt. Why bother? There was nothing to redistribute, nothing to democratise, and nothing to look forward to. People didn’t like the Neoleviathans, not once there stopped being resources to sack the crumbling cities and fledgling communes for, but people were so used to carrying on. They didn’t know how to die. So drudging on as the lights went out state by state felt natural, normal, the only option, and people only escaped in bouts of madness, soon regretted.

How did it end up like this?

Nobody living had ever seen an industrial machine, but the story went that everything you needed to know could be summed up through a quick analysis of these contraptions. The bodies of ancient creatures were brought up from the Earth and burned to set grand circuits of production in motion. They say that, in the beginning, this was directed at some end—the production of some necessary good or unnecessary luxury. Before long, though, the production became an end in itself, the society of ends became a society of means, and nobody knew how to stop it.

Sure, people thought they knew what should be done. There are always such people: they exist, even now, in the final days of the Neoleviathans—though if they are found out they are quickly gotten rid of. This is, and always has been, the logic of civilisation: ‘If we just remove them, it’ll be alright.’ Though there is a difference in degree between the self-defence of the state and the aggression of the agitator, it all comes down to the same mistake: paying too much attention to epiphenomena.

See, in the old days, before the Awakening,1This term does not denote the process of civilisational collapse, which occurred over a period of several decades and is not an event in the typical sense. Rather, ‘the Awakening’ refers properly to the point at which economic and political institutions were unable to ignore the ecological crisis any longer, setting in motion the social chaos that lead to the rise of the Neoleviathans. you could find ideologues anywhere and everywhere you looked. To us, their labour seems bizarre—why bother? It is obvious, looking back at their civilisation, that the levers of power were operated by people who had no interest in the ideologues, who were beholden only to the logic of civilisational expansion, just as we are now, here in the age of the Neoleviathans. It has always been this way. Humanity was not captured by a technocapital singularity, by market forces, by phantasms, by irreligious decadence, by shadowy outsiders, or by anything else. Life is captured by itself, tending always towards its own violent dissolution.2Peter Ward, The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), p. 35. “Life itself, because it is inherently Darwinian, is biocidal, suicidal, and creates a series of positive feedbacks to Earth systems (such as global temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane content) that harm later generations. Thus it is life that will cause the end of itself, on this or any planet inhabited by Darwinian life, through perturbation and changes of either temperature, atmospheric gas composition, or elemental cycles to values inimical to life.”

Break the narrative off. The concept of the Neoleviathan is not complicated. It is a state in crisis, in genuine crisis, doing whatever it needs to do to survive, in a world in which the politics of the armed lifeboat has become truly hegemonic. They do not appear because “evil” gains the upper hand, but because of the cascading collapse of the globally-integrated capitalist system. They emerge by a cold and calculated necessity, failing here, succeeding there, with the full-throated support of the body politic. The ones that survive, anyway.

In order to describe these Neoleviathans, the pessimistic approach adopted in this work will be primarily Darwinist, rather than Lucretian. Where Lucretianism is a pessimism of weary sighs and apocalyptic predictions, Darwinism is a pessimism of incredible dread and fearful dynamism—a pessimism that can always imagine worse. I claim it was a fact of Darwin’s methodological temperament which allowed him to discover evolution by natural selection: “To believe that evolution can still be taking place so long after the generation of the world, one has to be either an audacious optimist or a painfully grim pessimist. Charles Darwin, of course, was both. He dared to imagine a world in which the organisms that live do so by virtue of their parents’ victory in the struggle for survival, but whose progeny live at the mercy of their own efforts. What is missing in Lucretius but present in Darwin is dynamism, the ability to imagine worse. Only a truly dynamic pessimism is capable of grasping the world as a nightmare.”3Ulysse Malcoeur, ‘Darwinism in the End Times’, Natura Naturans, 2020 <>.

Where Lucretius predicted the Earth would soon meet its end, exploding back into its components under the force of the atomic flux,4Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books Limited, 1951), pp. 94–95. Darwin imagined the Earth as a restless machine, birthing endless forms, never tiring or regretting a single thing. Ecological collapse may represent a Lucretian limit to human folly, or a Darwinian trigger to authoritarian metastasis, engendering the evolution of nightmarish polities that would have the liberal dreamers of today shitting their pants.

The most interesting way to examine the possibilities of the Darwinian approach to a post-collapse political economy is to construct a blueprint and see how it goes: “I commend any form of scepticism to which I might reply: ‘Let us put it to the test!’”5Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyous Science, tr. R. Kevin Hill (London: Penguin Classics, 2018), p. 72, aph. 51. But before we flesh out the institutions, intra and international behaviour, economy, and political culture of the states of the future, we should first discuss what collapse even is, what it looks like, and set up some constraints and assumptions about the mid and post-collapse which will usher in the time of the Neoleviathans.

Let us get this out of the way: leftist revolution will not save us. It will almost certainly not occur as the collapse intensifies and, even if it does, the revolution will quite quickly find itself crushed if it adheres to leftist principles.6I rule out the possibility of simultaneous global leftist revolution as a way of avoiding counterrevolutionary reaction. This only needs to be justified to the faithful, who have no interest in being persuaded by me anyway. Suffice it to say that the odds of every country in the planet pulling off permanent and stable egalitarian revolution at the same time is unlikely. This will be sorely disappointing both to normal leftists and abnormal left-wing accelerationists alike. But the reasoning is really quite simple: any non-leftist polity will be quite happy to continue burning fossil fuels, destroying ecosystems, bombing and terrorising foreign territories and otherwise continuing business-as-usual, while leftist states will seek to mitigate environmental damage with renewable technology and de-growth policies. You can guess what happens and it isn’t pretty. The only way for leftist states to keep up is to become functionally non-leftist. If it was true for China and the USSR that they would have to make compromises in line with the material conditions, it’ll be infinitely truer for the hypothetical revolutionary states of the future if they are to keep up with the forces of reaction. This will essentially transform them into reactionary forces per se. Leninists who are used to covering for China will maintain that there’s still a meaningful difference, but these people aren’t worth taking seriously. The Neoleviathans certainly won’t.

I shall now lay out the basic principles of my political analysis. I solemnly swear to adhere to the following principles—except where they would lead me, as Orwell put it, to say something outright barbarous:

  1. Total hopelessness. Hope will never fill your belly, as Aesop said. Every leap of faith, every absurdist affirmation, every utopian dream pretending to be “scientific” is exposed as an echoing banality and turfed out into the shit where it belongs. The only limit of nastiness is plausibility, and the only possibility of good is when it is the only option.
  2. Rigorous Spinozism, stripped of its Cartesian artefacts. No souls, no mind of God, nothing incompatible with the coldest scientific naturalism. Everything considered in terms of materiality, with no pity or remorse for the existent, which can only ever cloud a theorist’s mind.
  3. Darwinism before Lucretianism. Should we stumble across any hard structural limits to civilisation’s continued existence I will, of course, note them with relish. But to avoid wishful thinking or rendering our Neoleviathans weaker than they will be in reality, I will generously look to always imagine worse.
  4. Medeanism as analytical principle: life can be treated as suicidal without possibility of treatment. Any attempt to mitigate the eventual sterilisation of the biosphere is, at best, a deceleration of a process that nonetheless proceeds. Left to their own devices, our Neoleviathans will carry human Medeanism to the absolute limit, shredding the Gaian pretenders without breaking a sweat, and taking the biosphere out along the way.

If that all seems a little dark to you, a little defeatist or pessimistic, consider this text, at the very least, a strategically useful foil which describes what you will potentially be up against. I have always found it calming to imagine the worst and plan accordingly. We pessimists can never be disappointed, while optimists are always one straw away from a broken spine.

If you look very closely, you can already see the Neoleviathans starting to assemble themselves. 3D printed firearms, CRISPR-enabled gene editing, deepfakes and de-anonymising tech, mass surveillance and identification coming along in leaps and bounds, the disintegration of reality into so many competing narratives enabled by cutting-edge personalised advertising technology—the Neoleviathans may vary in their uptake or refusal of this or that technology, and that’s okay. Natural selection will likely punish the timid as well as the overzealous, and we’ll see just what the golden mean turns out to be. But let’s be honest, you’d have to be stupid not to domesticate your populace as thoroughly as possible if the alternative is total collapse, and such a thing is possible to an extent that the authoritarians of the past couldn’t even imagine. Whether psychologically through hyper-targeted propaganda campaigns, pharmacologically through the administration of psychoactive drugs, genomically through the use of gene-editing techniques, it won’t be long before you’ve been mentally neutered, if you aren’t simply imprisoned or shot. There are no hard feelings, here. Any state which doesn’t do this will be shattered, and the fragments it leaves behind will either get with the program or be shattered themselves, and so on.

At this stage, the temptation may be to retort thus: ‘This is nonsense! The technology you’re scared of doesn’t yet exist, and may well never exist. We don’t know what genes code for intelligence, for example. CRISPR has many barriers to wide-spread application. Likewise, regulation can be implemented which . . .’—I’ll stop you there, civilised one. Do not misunderstand me: this technology does not need to be perfect, or even good at what it does. The Neoleviathans do not cease to exist because they will inevitably botch their plans. If you are naïve enough to think mere ignorance or uncertainty will prevent the most hubristic folly during a global crisis of the biosphere, you haven’t been paying attention. China has cut corners in its development of a COVID-19 vaccine and is vaccinating members of its military before administering it to the wider public.7Christian Shepherd and Wang Xueqiao, ‘China’s Military Takes Centre Stage in Covid-19 Vaccine Race’, Financial Times, 10 August 2020 <>. And just to avoid the implication that this is merely an example of “oriental despotism”, as chauvinistic Westerners would like to imagine, we will also note the deployment of live facial recognition cameras by the Metropolitan Police in the UK, despite the widespread criticism of the technology’s efficacy.8‘Met Police to Deploy Facial Recognition Cameras’, BBC News, 30 January 2020 <>. Power does not hesitate. The best thing you can hope for is not that the technology won’t be used (it will be) but that it takes as long as possible for the resources to be made available for the technology to work well. CRISPR is a gene-editing technology we hijacked from prokaryotes—to look at it and say, ‘well, some things just aren’t possible!’ without good justification is absurd. The same goes for surveillance tech—every criticism of their datasets or their methods only escalates the process of refinement. And besides, the Neoleviathans don’t need a surgeon’s knife, just a hatchet, a bit of motivation—and that soft warm thing you call “your” body.

The US is not a Neoleviathan just yet. But as an “advanced” country at high risk of collapse, it may be one of the first to undergo the process of leviathanisation. The liberals hope by electing Biden that this fate can be averted—but this is transparently ridiculous, not least because a Biden victory will likely result in mass violence and civil crisis as Trump declares the election a fraud and his supporters rally accordingly. In fact, a Trump victory may be the best way to delay the process, where the US survives as a reactionary state instead of undergoing the false vacuum collapse that will bring in the Neoleviathan successor(s).

See, leviathanisation is not when a state becomes more “evil” or “dark” or anything like that. Rather, it is when the intrinsic virtualities already present in the modern nation state are finally realised. What this means is that where the liberal-democratic state still cares for certain international norms and for its reputation internally and abroad, a Neoleviathan could not care less. But this is not all, or we could already characterise many states as Neoleviathans—though many could be called proto-Neoleviathans. The other thing that characterises a Neoleviathan is the context within which it exists: generalised international chaos that endlessly escalates in lockstep with the disintegration of the biosphere. The Schmittian political makes a comeback, aided by the technological cutting-edge, and any mistake is viciously punished either by humankind or by non-human nature. In fact, even to say that “mistakes” are “punished” is to go too far. Neoleviathans are states exposed to the most ruthless process of natural selection, and natural selection does not punish mistakes, it simply deselects the losers.

Resume narrative. Some say, somewhere in the great greying landfills, there is a laptop containing the original Neoleviathan.docx file. The versions that do survive, which have been passed down, which circulate as morbid textbooks for the powerful to study, are corrupt. There are strange lacunas in the text, mistakes, or unresolved thoughts, and the whole thing seems strangely disconnected. They say there was some critique or program that was lost, a path leading back to the old days where things were better, when the birds still sang, instead of this never-ending silence save for the sounds of labourers operating manual machinery. If this version could be found, or if newer theorists could perform the necessary theoretical labours, this nightmare could be escaped, and a world of justice and compassion could finally be realised.

Others say this is a myth. They say the version of Neoleviathan: Political Blueprints for the Post-Collapse which survives is authentic and complete, that the text was always staccato and pessimistic, seeking to document but not to counter, to describe and not to suggest, and that its author was not concerned with being right in the small details, but with describing a wider trajectory, illustrating by anecdote, example, and speculation the outline of the future to come, which could have been more mundane or stranger than this, but whose character was unavoidable in lieu of a rapid and sudden collapse. By this narrative, the text dates from 2020, written in feverish bursts and bouts of essayistic gloom and self-referential narrative whimsy, ad hoc, recursively and haphazardly edited with less interest in overall form and more interest in implementing a theory of what its author called pessimist contagion, as a means to force his progressive-minded comrades to confront the fact that the future, if there is one, promises not utopia but dystopia, and that by burying their heads in the sand or chanting ‘Communism will win!’ without thinking things through, they were not making the future any nicer, only delaying the inevitable and painful adjustment that would need to be made to a world which obviates any cause for hope more and more with each passing day.

Before the Awakening, there were only ideologues, and Neoleviathan was the work of an ideologue, though one that happened to get some things right.

Or that is what I should like to think.

Well, if you’re familiar with my first monograph, Political Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty in the Time of Insurrection, you’ll know how this goes.

We’ll publish a chapter roughly once a week until the text is complete. We’ll then be making a PDF version available to download here at Ortus, and hopefully by then submissions will have closed for the future issue of the Ortus journal and work can start on getting that ready to come out.

You can learn more about the Ortus project here and find us on Instagram here.

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