City-state Survivalism

In terms of politics climate change trumps everything else. It should be our primary concern if we want to survive or live with any kind of comfort*. Therefore all design oriented thought and praxis should be oriented to survival. S&W’s book Inventing The Future is pretty dismissive of survival but that seems to be a problem of scale and tone.
In conversations I have seen people agreeing they suspect that Black Panther style “survival until the revolution” counts as a strategy of invention. I discussed this in relation to sociotechnical hegemony and the Panther’s medical activism in a recent post. What marks the difference between “mere survival” and “survival until”? The temporal dimension: the dimension of hope. This is what the left lives on.
That said survival writ large can be the only reason for a perspective capable of joining localities together in a distributed and responsive way such that would allow for an adaptive and agonist strategy of invention. Invention viewed through the lens of the catastrophic becomes a salvagepunk in which there is no pragmatic difference.  Something like S&W’s strategic vision maybe the only one capable of allowing any kin of survival. There is no necessity to any of this.
The real problem is this lack of necessity. This is why it’s politics rather than physics. For instance: they describe a Spainish town as a “communist utopia”. The utopian dimension is entirely internal and depends upon several externalities driven by capitalism. It is a communist society of luxury and equality with freedom within the city limits but that nonetheless depends upon supply chains, resources, logistical networks and material infrastructures of global capitalism.
This massively distributed network of networks is marked with all those bad things that trouble the liberal progressive mind and rouse the socialist and communist to struggle. Except inside the city walls.
My suspicion is that were I one of the inhabitants of this city and I were faced with the call to generate “socialism beyond the walls” I would say:

nah, you’re alright. I’ve got it good.

This communist utopia would thus be empty of communist. The inhabitants, with their comfort and security, might even resemble those of us who have a modicum of comfort. And there is no really compelling argument I can think of that would drive the denizens to think to temporal and spatial scale, except maybe climate change. The trouble is that the motivational power of appeals to climate change are weak right now. Although I’ve read that in coming decades Spain’s olive groves and vineyards may be in jeopardy.
But faced with existential risk I can always hunker down into the local. I really appreciate the work S&W have done in Inventing The Future. But it all comes down to the motivational problem: why should anyone care? Climate change and the existential risk it poses is curiously the one thing they don’t really discuss. This is also something to be fixed “after the revolution”.
I tend to go with the more pessimistic thoughts on the likely outcome of all of this. I think one of the reasons we see ISIS emerge at the same time as we see the neoreactionaries emerge is because they both know something the left doesn’t: in times of extreme crisis and dissolution order and stability become more motivating as they  (seem to) promise higher chances of survival. This is why I’m willing to guess our future might well be the return of (resilient) city states even while I insist regional bodies like the EU are required to ameliorate climate change.
Large scale bodies offer the promise of better coordination across localities and scales to maximize our capacity for action beyond our immediate potencies, a Spinozan-Deleuzian promise S&W refer to as synthetic freedom. This thought might be a symptom of the affliction of hope though- a vestigial illusion of leftism. Maybe when shit gets really bad the same could be achieved to weather the very worst through the deployment of a Confederation of Panarchist Independent Municipalities. A dystopian Bolo-‘Bolo** with umpteen internally socialist-progressive cities, and just as many monarchies or theocracies.
This would be an urban future of the city states that survive. And undoubtedly many would survive. At root then there might be a new political reflexivity being born that circumvents deliberative processes of cognition to sneak in under the radar: we’re already fucked.
The emphasis on the indigenous would thus signify the creeping sense of the inevitable disintegration of global orders, with the possible exception of those markets that pre-exist capitalism.
The peculiarity of this is that it invites the idea that indigeneity has a value wherever its found. The same reflex is shared across the political distribution from the radical left to the re-emergent reactions.


* I never assume that this is what we want. It might be what we say we want but this doesn’t mean its what we actually want. I take it this needs no elaboration.
**This text, at once utopian and pragmatic, local whilst globally aware, may be ripe for a revival of interest. It is a long time since I read it and I no longer have a version of the text to hand so I rely on a reviewer:

This is no dropout project. Rather, the local communities upon which it is founded are contingent upon global flows of information, labour, and materials. Similarly Bolo’Bolo exhibits an unflinching dedication to the present, to beginning from where we are, that differentiates it from many other utopian works.

Much of P M’s plan, therefore, concerns salvage, reclamation, reinvention, and transformation of this world full of stuff that we made (albeit as fruits of an exploitative relationship). It is an adaptive rather than a palimpsest approach. It is not, though, a project of reform or assimilation. Rather it is a revolutionary work with due attention paid to the means by which capitalism might be abolished.

This post is in response to Edmund Berger’s nested reply on a previous thread.

3 responses to “City-state Survivalism

  1. Thanks for this reply, Arran, a lot of good thoughts here! Also, I appreciate the reminder of PM and Bolo Bolo… I’ve never read it, but have wanted to for a long time.

    I agree with you 100% – climate change is something that trumps all of our political aspirations at the moment (if I woke up tomorrow morning and capitalism was somehow magically rolling out the solution, I’d be the first in line for support), while all design must be rethought it terms of survival. That’s precisely why I think of accelerationist praxis as a design problem, and why generalized design must be politicized. When we bring the necessary of existential risk into play, the problem becomes twofold: how will this object or system impact other objects and systems in the long run (the question of sustainability), and how will this object or system help mitigate or resist the almost inevitable worst (the question of resiliency). The irony, as Ed Keller and Benjamin Bratton point out, is that existential risk is almost impossible to mitigate – something Virilio drew our attention to perfectly with his notion of the accident. Which, of course, means that we have tor work even harder. But…

    We’re being bombarded daily with the reality of climate change, be it the last batches of data from the modeling systems or from some extreme weather event or another Alaskan town relocating, and while governments chatter and people march in the streets little seems to be done. And while I point the finger at the lack of change I can point that finger inwardly too… I’m active in environmental groups in my state and try to do what I can, but I don’t truly consume any less. I drove thirteen hours this weekend to New Orleans, a city whose recent history and ongoing slow motion catastrophe (it is quite literally sinking) is reason enough to take climate change seriously, and spent two days eating and drinking. I even had the audacity to lecture the people I was with on the effects of excess and waste. So using myself as a case study, I fully understand the pessimism: even at the point in which our survival is in question, and we understand that (as well as we can), change becomes something to be put off to a later date, after one more festival. Festivals, even in their most politicized form, offers us nothing now – a point we’ve both reiterated multiple times here at S_Z.

    Digressions aside, perhaps it is that function of hope that allows those of us to delay what needs to be done. As long as we hope for transformation in some future, we can sit around the table for one more meeting arguing Marx, or go down to the demo, or absorb another academic lecture on Deleuze. But without hope, I only see futility and no reason to move. So against earlier positions I have maintained – and for me, this points towards your reflections on the necessity of large-scale organizations like the EU – I’m convinced politics in our moment does require some sort of vanguard formation. The question – and it seems this is where accelerationist program comes in – is how to link up something like this to the socio-technical knowledge and design-based work that our time requires. In an earlier post here (The Anthropocene and the End of Postmodernism), I tried to hint at something like this by drawing attention to the dynamic relationship between radical politics, practical knowledge formations, and future-oriented design at the outset of the Russian revolution (and pre-New Economic Policy)

    As for ISIS and neoreactionaries… “they both know something the left doesn’t: in times of extreme crisis and dissolution order and stability become more motivating as they (seem to) promise higher chances of survival.” The irony is that the left DOES know this: socialism always thought that it would arise at the moments of crisis (usually economic), but when push came to shove fascism has so often taken hold. This is precisely the existential risk I was alluding to in regards to the indigenous. Fascism – which things like ISIS truly are – do not begin from the glorification of the folkish, but from its disintegration, and the formation of scapegoats to explain this disappearance. The almost guaranteed outcome of climate change without structural alternatives is the rise of new ISISes, but without properly navigating the complex relationship between those internal and external to a given territory or locality, the risk for putting into play dangerous reactionary energies is very real.

    • To respond to the last point: yes, the left understand its popularity emerges out of crises. What it doesn’t understand is how to take advantage of those crises; this is the singular failure of the contemporary left. There are those attempting to reignite it such as the accelerationists and there are those sinking further into the morass of particularism and a kind of reverse exceptionalism, the latter evident in the indigenous protectionism we all admit does occur. The left further fails to understand that order and stability come in multiple domains. The radical left has always tried to ride the waves of nihilism and the accelerationists do exactly this, making it odd when people critique them for it (these critiques have missed a fundamentally philosophical point about accelerationism). There is a question about the capacities of the left to respond to the existential anxieties and traumas of the multiple domain losses experienced through nihilism that the presiding and emergent generations always feel acutely. The radical left says “onward march to a better future!” and the right accelerationists say “onward march to no future!” and the average person in the street says “holy shit am I cracking up?” I’m increasingly adopting what could be considered a cynical position but adherents of which usually pass off as “realism”. Post-nihilist pragmatism dictates a speculative pragmatism that cannot decide ahead of time whether the left or the right is correct. Minimally, as Jonathan Haidt has repeatedly insisted, it means accepting the desires the appeal or are incited by the right are real desires. If the left can’t answer those desires it has no place in the market.

  2. Pingback: Patchworking the Future (3): Deeply Adaptive Patchworking vs. Fully Automated Fantasies | synthetic zerø·

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