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.