Combined and Uneven Apocalypse

25.6.19 / Text
Writer Evan Calder Williams tells us why the apocalypse is already happening, just not everywhere at once

Still from Jubilee, directed by Derek Jarman (United Kingdom: Whaley-Malin Productions/Megalovision 1978)

Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us, and the prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts, and beasts so terrible that the ancient animal symbols of St. John will seem like cooing doves and cupids in comparison. (Heinrich Heine, Lutetia; or, Paris)

So when the ship goes down, so too do the first class passengers ...
(Amadeo Bordiga, Weird and Wonderful Tales of Modern Social Decadence)


BARBARIANS INSIDE THE GATES

The world is already apocalyptic. Just not all at the same time.

To be overcome: the notion of apocalypse as evental, the ground-clearing revelatory trauma that immediately founds a new nomos of the earth.[1] In its place: combined and uneven apocalypse.

In other words, we already occupy a world in which Heine’s entirely new beasts have emerged and exist alongside us, real organizations of suffering and domination. All the more so, in unprecedented invention and brutality, under capitalism. The question is the visibility of these beasts. They constantly rear their figurative heads, yes. But because they are not accidents but necessary functions and consequences of the capitalist world system, they are structural blindspots. The intentional symptom, the shouldn’t-be that has-to-be for it all to work: no wonder it’s so hard to write a new apocalypse.

This isn’t to dredge back up the persistent (and always relevant) point that we remain conveniently unaware of pockets of hell on earth that approximate the total breakdown of civility and quality of life, or that we catch glimpses of them only when they surge up in the midst of supposedly advanced sectors of the world. For example, the rotting refuse and murdered “looters” of Hurricane Katrina revealed what we’ve “known all along” about the structures of poverty, race and urban decay in America. The brief and quickly forgotten media focus on “unthinkable” poverty and desperation following in the wake of natural disasters, catches, out the corner of its impatient and trained eye, forms of deprivation that cannot be ascribed to whatever tsunami or earthquake is in question. (Like some terrible echo of the question to be asked of horror movies: “well, if this particular catastrophic event - werewolves, zombies, or evil fog - didn’t happen, what would still be very wrong with people’s lives?” What does this exceptional instance reveal that is horrifying because it’s already the case?) And underpinning this, the articulations of liberal guilt, sincere as it may or may not be, ranging from NGOs and their often well-intentioned apologetics of new imperialism to calls for less conspicuous consumption, from staying well-informed and reading the right newspapers to learning the doomed-to-fail limits of that knowledge.

To counter this, to at once grasp the non-evental persistence of hell on earth and to escape the falsely naturalizing vision that “these sort of things are just part of human life,” we push toward a theory of combined and uneven apocalypse. The term is a revision and pun off of the Marxist theory of combined and uneven development, a theory that gives shape to my analysis not just of geographical displacement but a general structure of overlapping timescales, speculative trajectories out of joint, and all those knotty passages from abstraction to the barest shapes of the concrete.

The term first came into use with Trotsky’s analysis, especially in The History of the Russian Revolution, of the process of development for nations - in this case, backward, peasant-centered Russia - entering into bourgeois social relations, and the real subsumption of labor forms to capitalism in the midst of an already “modern” world dominated by fully developed powers. One of the particularities of capitalism as a developmental model is that the very nature of international trade and emergent global circulation of raw materials and commodities means that countries cannot develop capitalistically outside of the broader trendline of development. Once capitalism was forged out of the partition of the commons and the innovation of post-feudal labor models in England, no other country could develop it “organically” from scratch. It is a game of catch-up, mimicking the new forms and technologies, securing trade routes, and walking the fine line between fiercely protecting one’s interests and opening up markets to the more anarchic struggles of competition. It’s stepping forward unstably, on the basis of a combination of mercenary innovation, prior geopolitical sway, historical luck, and a commitment to scrapping the old organization of economic life while keeping its ideologies of domination. Above all, it’s making damn sure that once you’ve secured a piece of the production-circulation pie, you will bar others from entering the system except as markets for your goods, pools of cheap labor for your production, and sites resource extraction. Hence, any nation trying to break from this position faces a battle of rupturing the material organization of the capitalist system: a willingness to be nastier in forcing the acceleration toward social restructuring and to offer cheaper labor than elsewhere available was, unfortunately, the dominant solution of the 20th century.

Not is all bad news for our latecomers, our barbarians at the value-form gate. To enter into the global order is to arrive at its modernity, wherever that may be: the need to compete at the level of the other powers means rushing headlong forward, to arrive at that market-confirmed point of the present (the rates of profit against which one shines or fails) without passing through all the stages of “organic” development prior. As Trotsky writes,

A backward country assimilates the material and intellectual conquests of the advanced countries. But this does not mean that it reproduces them slavishly, reproduces all the stages of their past ... The privilege of historic backwardness permits, or rather compels, the adoption of whatever is ready in advance of any specified date, skipping a whole series of intermediate stages. Savages throw away their bows and arrows for rifles all at once, without traveling the road which lay between those two weapons in the past.[2]

(Although, as we have seen with salvagepunk and will consider further, that doesn’t mean that non-savages can’t slide back to weapons they never held in the past. Apparently leaps and bounds don’t preclude an odd depth of awareness of fantasmatic savageries never lived, but dreamt hotly.) The point to draw out here, in a consideration of cultural objects and the political imaginary at work behind them, is not lagging behind and then deciding to launch ahead. It is that these coexisting modes of production (Poulantzas) and their attendant time scales are a structural consequence, a necessity for the world system to function: from the perspective of capital, they are not irreconcilable. As such, in deciding to enter the world market, you don’t “get” to inherit and approximate the most advanced forms. You are forced to do in order to compete and, in doing so, inject not just fresh labor into the global calculations of profit and value-extraction but also new hybrid ways of doing business. The most advanced forms compete and feed off of the lost innovations of the backward and out of joint. Automation of assembly lines and forcible land-grabs exist uneasily side by side, their friction sparks lighting up new ways of excavating the old and outmoding the new.

The other sense of “combined and uneven development” applicable (and already gestured to) is a broader picture of the world system. This perspective, drawn out by Luxemburg and Lenin and more recently by Neal Smith and David Harvey, among others, sees that the lag-behinds, pockets of underdevelopment, zones of abject poverty and domination, and startling gaps between rich and poor regions are not the consequence of an irrational or badly managed global economic order. They are the manifestation of and articulated mechanism by which capitalism, taken as a totality, assures its overall preservation and development. The fundamental requirement of the system to not “stay still,” to constantly reduce the cost of production and maintain positive growth rate - for, under capitalism, a year of systemic breaking-even, of sustainable production and consumption, is a year of crisis - necessitates a planetary order materially organized around the appropriation of certain areas as mere resource pockets and opportunities for the investment of foreign capital.

The account and specificity of how this comes to be and how this functions far exceeds our space and interest here. More immediate, then, is the perspective that underlies this model and which it offers beyond itself. What does this have to do with making sense of movies about the end of the world and our reversion/conversion to cavemen, gas-obsessed barbarians, walking corpses, insane loners in an empty city? And what foothold does it give for an antagonism, thought and lived, against late capitalism?

Three thoughts.

First, it’s a perspective that exceeds either a simple monolithic advance - or reversal, at times - of history as progress nor a scattered patchwork of different time scales, historical projects, and their resultant organization of bodies and moneys. Rather, it is a properly dialectical conception, of stresses between actual political geography and visions of where the world historical project is going. Specifically, it considers the consequences of the intersections between such a monolithic perspective (the march forward of global capitalism through and toward liberal democracy as a way to weather the increasingly severe economic, ecological, and sociopolitical crises bound to emerge) and the zones which can never be seen by it as other than barbaric pockets of anti-modernity, lingering vestiges of intolerance, superstition, and simpler times to be celebrated for their “authentic diversity” while folded in under strictures of extractive market relations. This isn’t to say that one perspective or the other, either the unified teleology of capitalist progress or the competing and incompatible micro-visions of different historical trajectories, is more or less true. Rather, the point is to grasp how the unified vision only gains consistency through its relationship to what cannot fit into it and of how it provides an ideological backdrop for the material shaping of a world that will preserve those unwelcome zones. In other words, decisively not flattening the world and welcoming all equally into the financial fold, but providing the narrative of that as the cover story for an opposite practice.

Second, what does, or what would, it mean to fight progress, to refuse the trendlines and timelines offered? Neither to desperately cling to past regimes nor, crucially, to fetishize the way things were. Instead, to wonder, like certain strains of idiosyncratic apocalypticism at once anti-capitalist and anti-modern, if the savage might throw away his bow for a rifle in order to take aim at the very need to throw away the bow in the first place. To take up the arms of the contemporary capitalist world, either to beat it at its own game (a certain Communist vision of employing capitalist technology in order to develop productive forces beyond the limits of capitalist scarcity) or to take it down from within (alternately, versions of Italian workerism and certain Situationist and ultra-left cultural practices). The point, as always, is to stay a bit savage in the midst of all this mediated savagery, to fight for something more equal, organized, perhaps even clean and modern, by never going totally non-native.

Third, to stress the givenness of this order. You’re is always in the shadow of the world that rejects you, and privation is not reduced to the grayness of a degree zero. These are apocalyptic zones, sites in which we see exposed both the collapse of capitalist universality and the revealed presence of what cannot be included (“differentiated,” recognized) without undermining the workings of the global economic order. For this reason, the degradation to the status and material forms of the backward, the primitive, the anarchic, the hell-on-earth is always historically marked, and not in terms of what era of backwardness a region approximates. It is not uncommon to hear people speak of certain zones (deep in jungles, high on mountains) as “unchanged since the 13th century,” or the like, claims which, while occasionally accurate in describing agricultural practices, family structure, etc, are incapable of recognizing that such zones are historically tarred, however much in shadow, with the sign of the Now, precisely because they are visible to us only as a not-this, not-Now. Even on a less extreme scale, the collapse -and willful maintenance by powerful nations - of certain areas into the barest subsistence farming, warlord powers, clan battles, uncontrollable ravages of disease, and aching famine: these must be grasped as “signs of the time,” not as vestiges of what should be outmoded if we could just get everyone to agree on the universal model of liberal capitalism. These barbarisms are the direct result and fundamental support system for all those new beasts springing forth, odd innovations in finance, different ways of streamlining shipping containers, revolutions in the time scales and cycles of capital. The seeming banalities and technical details are the real writers of a new apocalypse. To counter this, to write otherwise, is also to refuse to pass through the old stages, to stand in the present while recognizing that any capture we manage is of a moment already passing. The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk, indeed.



[1] The „nomos of the earth” is a concept raised by Carl Schmitt in a book of that title. Nomos might be translated as “law,” but it should be conceived of as a sort of fundamental ordering, a functional system of organization and ideology around which relations of power crystallize.

[2] Trotsky, Leon.The History of the Russian Revolution. Vol. One: The Overthrow of Tzarism. Available at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/ch01.htm


Excerpt from: Evan Calder Williams, Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, Luciferian Marxism (Winchester/Washington: Zero Books 2010)