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 <https://metaspinoza.substack.com/p/7-darwinism-in-the-end-times>.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 <https://www.ft.com/content/2c3ae017-6c09-4f7e-93b8-f8039fe79a6c>. 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 <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51237665>. 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.
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