Whither Polycrisis? Emergency, Management, Utopia

Aaron Benanav. Automation and the Future of Work. New York and London: Verso, 2020.

Aaron Benanav. Automation and the Future of Work. New York and London: Verso, 2020. 160 pp. $25.95 CAD hardcover

Andreas Malm.  Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century. New York & London: Verso, 2020. 224 pp. $25.95 CAD paper

Adam Tooze.  Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy. New York: Viking, 2021. 354 pp. $37.00 CAD hardcover

The coronavirus pandemic, if ostensibly a global crisis of public health, has been experienced more broadly as a generalized crisis of human living. Restrictions and changes made in daily life, justified as the necessities of public health if not actually and always made for those reasons, have reverberated into all spheres of our collective existence. National or regional contexts have conditioned these reverberations to a degree. Of course, a generalized crisis does not imply an equal experience of its consequences.

The global character of the pandemic should not be surprising. Consider its causes: There is abundant evidence that this pandemic, along with narrowly avoided past pandemics and inevitable future ones, is traceable to the operations of global capitalism, which have fundamentally deformed our relationships to nature, and thereby ushered in a climate crisis that, among other things, makes pandemics like the current one a very likely prospect.[1] All life on earth is collectively entangled, yet unequally implicated, in the operations of capitalism. Without fully sorting these entanglements and implications out – a Herculean task – we can still perceive that they have arisen through global processes affecting all of humanity. To put it one way, there is now a very real sense in which nothing, at least nothing with “-ism” as a suffix, is possible in one country.

So, what is to be done? Ambitious attempts to answer the question suggest both its urgency and its difficulty. There is no doubt that the pandemic has thrown our collective political and economic lives, along with our biological lives, into flux and uncertainty. It has, in many cases at least, alerted us to the inherent instability of the status quo. Surely some eventual outcomes are more likely than others. Perhaps it is more important, though, to note that some outcomes are more tolerable than others. Our collective crisis points, potentially, towards bleak horizons. A cottage industry in cultural despair encourages us to focus exclusively on them. A politics with a different aim must take the exercise of imagining radically different horizons seriously. 

In Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy, which as its title suggests is preoccupied with the pandemic’s impact on the world’s financial system in 2020, historian Adam Tooze reminds us of the political and economic problems that were front of mind before the virus arrived. There was geopolitical tension between the US and China; Donald Trump and all the chaos associated with the American presidential election; and slow economic growth around most of the world, which was coupled with high debt levels especially in the global south. Together, these issues already portended a looming crisis of one kind or another, with no viral intervention needed. Additionally, Brexit negotiations were nearing a hard deadline, civil war in Syria was continuing, and of course the climate crisis was ever-present, as it continues to be.

Then: shutdown. For most of us, it was March 2020 when life-as-we-knew-it ground to a halt with mass closures and cancellations. Mostly but not only in rich countries, we were sustained through massive stimulus policies geared to helping us ride the waves (or the “curves”) of coronavirus. Fiscal and monetary policy alike have been stretched beyond what was possible for most to imagine two years ago. Decades of austere policy orthodoxy were seemingly upended in an instant. How significant was the change? Let’s just say that, before 2020, the International Monetary Fund was not in the business of chiding Latin American governments for running budget deficits that were too small.[2] All of this took place alongside pre-existing and continuing problems. A generalized crisis indeed.

Making use of a term popularized in the affairs of the European Union over the last decade, Tooze captures this generality with the concept of a “polycrisis.” Drawing in an interesting way from a 2019 essay by Xi Jinping protégé Chen Yixin, Tooze stresses that “The virus was an example of backflow on a huge scale, from the Chinese countryside to the city of Wuhan, from Wuhan to the rest of the world” (7). The current polycrisis, with its overlapping and interlocking effects across economics, politics, and the environment, to put it in the most general terms possible, thus arguably became both “a comprehensive crisis of the neoliberal era” and “the first major crisis of the age of the Anthropocene to come.” In the former case, Tooze sees an era in the history of capitalism at its terminus: “the end of an arc whose origin is to be found in the 1970s” (22). In the latter case, no end is in sight, or at least we hope not. The worst ramifications of the Anthropocene and its most daunting spectre, anthropogenic climate change, are yet to come. In general, if polycrisis appears to us now as a novel phenomenon, that sense of it will fade as the future arrives.

Tooze is committed to a form of history-writing that places the reader right in the centre of the action, in media res, staying “as far as possible, in the moment itself” (22). Yet, he cannot entirely avoid pondering the general patterns of the past or the likely patterns of the emerging future. In particular, he draws attention to the question of neoliberalism as a political economy that might be passing away before our eyes. In the conclusion of Shutdown, Tooze invokes the concept of a “great acceleration” in order to clarify his view that 2020, and presumably the years immediately following it, represents both a crisis and “a way station on an ascending curve of radical change” (292). Stressing, as he does repeatedly, that the coronavirus pandemic shows us our unavoidable imbrication with and dependence on the natural environment, Tooze is clear that not everything is possible, and perhaps nothing is quite as impossible as a restoration of business as usual. So, if the great acceleration demands to be met with alternative political-economic arrangements, not to mention technological adaptations, where are we headed? And where should we be headed?

Tooze’s usual political identification is “left-liberal,” which fairly describes the tenor of his ambitions. The historian Perry Anderson has pointed out that “the compound tends to be unstable,” which is true, and to the extent that the left “half” is the more emphasized in Shutdown, Tooze’s politics could also be described as social democratic.[3] The stakes, as he sees them, are these:

Either we find ways to turn the billions invested in research and development and futuristic technology into trillions, either we take seriously the need to build more sustainable and resilient economies and societies and equip ourselves with the standing capacities necessary to meet fast-moving and unpredictable crises, or we will be overwhelmed by the blowback from our natural environment (292).

Tooze’s emphasis is thus on particular forms of investment as our best tools to confront the problems we face. The position is not advanced naively—he is well aware of the political and economic factors that might hinder, limit, or even foreclose upon our ability to make the kinds of investments that would enable an aversion of the worst blowback. Nor is he nostalgic for days long gone: “we cannot travel back in time to the days of postwar Keynesianism” (293). The point is that one way or the other, the future depends on the kinds of investments made on its behalf.

What are the prospects for investment of the kind that Tooze would like to see? Probably not great. Neither of the two most likely national candidates to initiate the investments that might save us—the US and China—appear to be entirely interested in the job, which at any rate cannot be achieved in a unipolar or unilateral way. As Tooze says, “the new era of globalization is generating a centrifugal multipolarity” (294). That being so, ongoing geopolitical tensions between the two powers likely do not bode well. If nothing else, though, geopolitical tensions are being held largely in check by the unavoidable exigencies of crisis management. “The chief countervailing force to the escalation of the global tension in political, economic, and ecological realms is…crisis management on an ever-larger scale, crisis-driven, and ad hoc” (301). For Tooze, this means that as we stumble through the crisis we are choosing constantly between less-than-ideal policy options. But from within a polycrisis that portends many very bad options, less-than-ideal should be quite appealing.

Reason for optimism is not totally absent, though perhaps 2020 gave us more of such reason than did 2021. Tooze shows throughout his book just how thoroughly existing fiscal and monetary orthodoxy has been challenged, and proven false, by the pandemic. In this regard, his descriptions of the fiscal and monetary “toolkits” wielded by crisis fighters in both advanced and emerging economies is striking. Providing seemingly limitless cash to combat the sudden economic jolt in 2020, the American Federal Reserve acted “not just as a lender of last resort, but as a market maker” (119). The Fed dropped interest rates to zero and began buying hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities to calm markets. Fiscal policy followed in the form of pandemic relief. In the US, there was the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Recovery Act which delivered some 2.2 trillion dollars of support, an unprecedented amount. In other advanced economies, there were similar programs, though the numbers were naturally not quite so eye-popping. The US relief programs amounted to about 10 percent of GDP, the rich country average was about 8.5 percent, for middle income nations it was 4 percent, and in poor countries the average was below 2 percent (132). Collective but unequal, again. Still, programs like these nonetheless served as a striking rebuttal to enduring nostrums about the virtue and the necessity of fiscal restraint. In 2020, perhaps there was a broad realization of what could be done if policymakers just did it.

Along these lines, Tooze casts in his lot with advocates for programs like a Green New Deal (GND) who, just as they were seeing their near-term political prospects defeated with the end of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign in 2020, were simultaneously having their viewpoint vindicated all around. Seeking to address both the climate crisis and socio-economic inequality, GND supporters reject conservative economic axioms and insist on widespread investments to avert the worst of the climate crisis while simultaneously reducing economic inequality. The hints are in the name: take the best parts (it had its problems) of the New Deal, great exemplar of crisis-fighting investment in the 20th century, and make it green. If not outright revolutionary, a GND would certainly be radical. In this way, perhaps the foremost obstacle that it encountered in the first year of the pandemic was that, for most people, getting by from day to day took precedence over pondering longer-term issues. “The year 2020 was about survival,” Tooze writes (12). So, if the pandemic has shown us both the possibility and the desirability of broadly green and social-democratic investment, it has also provided an excuse for delay.

What if delay is not a luxury that we can afford? Tooze is aware of the problem. He confronts it directly in a review of recent work by Andreas Malm, where he explicitly rejects the idea that we can take our time. On this and other questions, Tooze is sympathetic to Malm, but in general Malm offers a provocative and often persuasive foil to him. More radical than Tooze, in the pamphlet Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency Malm identifies himself as an “ecological Leninist” and makes the case that nothing short of a death blow to global capitalism will enable us to confront the problems we face now and will face in the future. For Tooze, Malm forces the question: “What are the social democratic politics of emergency?”[4] But in fact, Malm’s work should prompt a more fundamental reflection on the part of social democrats. In an emergency that we have now entered and from which we cannot exit except by taking drastic measures, is social democracy viable at all? Should we really bet on a program of investment that does not currently possess an historic bloc to enact it at adequate scale and which has been historically defined by its relative conservatism on questions of stark political-economic change?

Like Tooze, Malm sees our differing reactions to coronavirus and the climate (immediate action in the former case, perpetual dawdling in the latter) as functions of time. He writes, “By dint of being a secular trend, global heating gave extended opportunities for obstruction to the perpetrators, in conjunction with a poor first timeline of victimhood,” continuing, “Covid-19 negated both” (24). The precise dynamics at play are complex, but in general we’ve taken action on coronavirus because not doing so would have guaranteed mass death and suffering in the very near-term, including in the rich countries of the global north. Climate crisis, which will harm the global poor more quickly and more grievously than it will the rich, is a different kind of problem. The hum of climate alarm has been a fixture mostly in the background (if we’ve been lucky) of our lives for a long while now, and the hum can be perpetually ignored so long as suffering and death are able to be construed largely as problems of the future. For sure, when climate crisis manifests in immediate emergencies like wildfire and flooding, it gets dealt with. But broader solutions are postponed indefinitely—and, for those profiting from the present system, conveniently.

The middle chapter of Malm’s pamphlet, the longest of three, is concerned with a description of the web of interests and logics that make the pandemic and the climate crisis a part of the same collective problem: “The two [crises] are interlaced aspects, on different scales of time and space, of what is now one chronic emergency” (91). The chronic emergency, then, is a function of capitalism. But Malm also takes care to be more specific and note that coronavirus and climate “intersect with special intensity” when it comes to fossil capitalism, a particular systemic form, based on the extraction and burning of fossil fuel, that emerged in the industrial revolution and then spread around the world. He argues that “fossil fuel extraction in tropical forests combines the drivers of climate change and zoonotic spillover” – that is, diseases crossing species boundaries, like from bats to humans – “in one bulldozer” (106). Something needs to be done about that bulldozer, and Malm is clear that environmental movements should be as militant as possible in their tactics. Another of Malm’s recent works is indeed entitled How to Blow up a Pipeline.[5]

Identifying chronic emergency with a single root cause implies a radical response, not simply a militant one, and for Malm radicalism requires addressing causes rather than mere symptoms. Accordingly, part of the conclusion to Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency proceeds under the heading of “A Brief Obituary for Social Democracy.” As Malm sees it, social democracy is made possible, even legitimately thinkable, only when it proceeds from what he thinks is a mistaken assumption that capitalism is more or less stable and not prone to crises. Malm thinks that assuming capitalism’s stability makes it seem preferable to “extract piecemeal reforms” rather than “smashing decrepit capitalism.” In actuality, capitalism over the centuries paradoxically exhibits both recurrent and severe crises and yet a broad stability with respect to its underlying precepts and core profit-making procedures. The claim is defended historically, too. Nowhere was social democracy practiced more effectively than in postwar Sweden, which to Malm was one of “the most tranquil societies modern history has known.” From where we stand today, in the chronic emergency, tranquility is a fantasy. Given that we have no time to spare, Malm sees two trajectories for social democracy. It can “continue to flow with the time, deeper into catastrophe,” or it can admit “that time is up and another decade or even year of this status quo is intolerable” (121).

In Malm’s model of “dialectics of climatic disaster,” the social is “no longer on the left side solely. It has saturated the hazards themselvessimilar social drivers are active on both sides of the equation—not as omnipotent forces to which nothing can be added, but as non-negligible prime movers.” (100-103). In his view, “the epoch of the Capitalocene is characterised by uncontrolled speed-up in the production of hazardous nature” (103).

Rejection of the idea that we have any time to spare is a key component of Malm’s ecological Leninism. Phrased in positive terms, it means that for the ecological Leninist, “speed [is a] paramount virtue” (150). Lamenting that we’ve waited too long to move at a moderate pace now—“very regrettably, because of the criminal waiting and delaying and dithering and denying of the dominant classes”—Malm is sure that only immediate and radical action can meet the moment. Radicalism, or “turning the crises of symptoms into the crises of the causes,” is the only way that politics commensurate with the emergency can develop (148, emphasis original). Finally, the third of Malm’s core principles, the practical ambition of ecological Leninism is to fundamentally re-direct the broad “capitalist state.” Only the state can martial the kinds of power and capacity necessary to transition past fossil capitalism. So, we should bring the state, especially those parts of it most responsible for current predicaments and most intransigent in their face, under public control and impose an alternative will on would-be resisters. Ecological Leninism is radicalism plus speed, committed to taking control of the state and wielding it as a means to save human civilization.[6]

Malm emphasizes that ecological Leninism is “a lodestar of principles, not a party affiliation” or political program (153). But its principles do point towards political programs and the one for which Malm advocates is provocative: war communism. Analogizing the present crisis with World War II, as many have done, is wrongheaded. Instead, if we must look for a twentieth-century precedent, we are better off if we focus on the period of the Russian Civil War from 1918-1921. Malm knows what you’re thinking. No, “invoking war communism is not to suggest that we should have summary executions, send food detachments into the countryside, or militarise labour” (159). Instead, Malm means to remind us that war communism was a political economy of emergency practiced almost entirely without fossil fuels. Controlling less than five percent of either the coal or oil resources in Russia, and with fuel imports cut off, the Bolsheviks burned wood from the boreal forests to make war communism possible. Of course, it’s not the case that we should leave fossil fuels behind by instead burning up our forests. Malm insists that modern renewable energy doesn’t have the inherent deficiencies of wood vis-à-vis fossil fuels and, importantly, collecting wind or solar energy doesn’t require an army of coerced labour. The analogy is not intended to be perfect, but generative. As a chosen metaphor for our times, surely, we’d be better off with “Trotsky riding on a wood-fueled train” than with “FDR surfing on an ocean of oil” (160).

Still, war communism was miserable and if it were implemented again there would be no reason to expect “an enjoyable gambol through the meadows” (163). What would it look like today? Malm only offers a very broad outline. For a start, “there is no escaping outlawing wildlife consumption and terminating mass aviation and phasing out meat and other things considered parts of the good life” (164). The idea that a transition beyond fossil fuels would involve no sacrifices, including for ordinary people, is hopelessly wrong and dishonest. Experts, or “bourgeois specialists,” would be recruited from energy companies and tech start-ups and asked to work for the new cause. Old institutions would have to inform new ones. What else? Malm isn’t too interested in saying. After all, this is a provocation, not a policy framework.

Malm is more careful about what twenty-first-century war communism would not be: tyrannical. Noting that in Russia “the journey from war communism to tyranny was short to non-existent,” his wager is that the emergency mobilization of the state far beyond its normal functions does not necessarily imply a one-way trip to totalitarianism. Malm’s war communism would confront, not ignore, “the dilemma of how to execute control measures in an emergency without trampling on democratic rights, but rather by building on and drawing force from them” (165). Indeed, here he thinks that a vision of war communism derived from ecological Leninist principles makes perfect sense. Which tradition in the history of socialism has devoted more attention to the problem of tyranny than anti-Stalinist Leninism?

While just an analogy, then, war communism shows the way for Malm. In the most general sketch,

It means learning to live without fossil fuels in no time, breaking the resistance of dominant classes, transforming the economy for the duration, refusing to give up even if all the worst-case scenarios come true, rising out of the ruins with the force and the compromises required, organising the transitional period of restoration, staying with the dilemma (167).

If the warming world, heated by capitalism, constitutes the ultimate cause of our emergency, Malm’s hope is that the apparently more acute crisis of the pandemic might function as a kind of wake-up call, an indication of what we can expect in a world that spirals beyond any meaningful control. If we acknowledge that oblivion awaits absent radical intervention, war communism becomes thinkable. It’s far-fetched, but it’s not utopian. “An age this bad can only be reflected in extreme contrasting images,” Malm writes. War communism is “exactly as utopian as survival” (174).

What of utopia, then? Malm is too radical to consider it a possibility, and Tooze is not radical enough to think in such terms. Another recent work, not quite as squarely addressed to the current crisis but still cognizant of it, makes the utopian case. In Automation and the Future of Work, the historian Aaron Benanav ventures an economic history of the last fifty years which is geared towards another answer to the question of what is to be done. The book addresses the increasingly widespread fear that automated production poses an existential threat to labour as we know it, that robots will take all our jobs. Countering these projections, Benanav’s case is succinct: the cause of persistent “underdemand for labour” is not automated economic processes. Rather, long-term economic stagnation in an environment of technical change is to blame. Our horizon is not one of mass joblessness but one where labour is persistently devalued, meaning that workers will mainly be poorly and inconsistently paid rather than not hired at all. Cheap labour ought to suit the capitalists, who in this sense are in fact likely to be discouraged from implementing technological alternatives to human labour.

Benanav argues that, without major policy changes, these tendencies are all likely to be exacerbated by the present crisis. To be fair, he made this projection sometime in the very early part of the pandemic, surely having written almost the entire book before any of us had heard of the novel coronavirus. Today, with labour markets tighter than they have been in a long time, the prognosis might seem less clear.[7] Still, Benanav’s broader case is compelling. Set against the analysis of “automation theorists” who, fearing robotization of all work, advocate policy solutions like a universal basic income (UBI), Benanav keeps his view on structures and trends. As a technocratic policy instrument, the success or failure of any UBI would be dependent on the conditions of its implementation. Without addressing fundamental causes, UBI can be no more than a band-aid. Benanav’s syllogism, much like Malm’s, is this: secular trends in capitalism are to blame for existing predicaments, so to address those predicaments we should focus our efforts on their causes.

Noting the stubbornness of neoliberalism and its ugly spin offs – “angry ethno-nationalisms and climate-induced catastrophes of growing frequency and scale” – along with the lack of alternatives that can be meaningfully imagined, Benanav concludes his book with a sketch of a “post-scarcity world” (81-82). His intent is to reverse the logic of automation theorists, who foresee a technologically-induced dystopia and suggest palliatives in the form of UBI proposals. For his part, Benanav asks that we start with a vision of a world we’d like to live in and consider the technical and political undertakings that we’d need make to get there. Nothing about Benanav’s vision is as alarming as Malm’s war communism, but by any standard the proposal is radical. Its utopianism is openly acknowledged (Thomas More is cited repeatedly). For Benanav, the pre-condition of post-scarcity is “the abolition of private property and monetary exchange in favor of planned cooperation” (82).

Benanav’s post-scarcity world is described further in terms of what Marx termed “a realm of necessity” and “a realm of freedom.” In the former, we carry out the tasks necessary for our day-to-day lives. What these tasks are in general terms – obtaining food and shelter, safeguarding our health, raising the next generation, and so on – can be specified, but every social order will suggest different ways of handling them.  In the latter, the realm of freedom, human beings are able, on the basis of successfully handling life’s necessities, to craft identities and pursue projects that express their human potentials and capacities.  

Benanav doesn’t provide an exhaustive list of the tasks in the realm of necessity and he would not accept the notion that the list could be figured ahead of time. Labour in the realm of necessity would be determined and assigned democratically. Broad strokes are possible, though, as the provision of some goods and services is obviously necessary in any world. Benanav is thinking of “the provision of housing, food, clothing, common intermediate and final goods, sanitation, water, electricity, healthcare, education, child and elder care, means of both communication and transportation, and so on” (86). We can imagine that “and so on” is carrying a substantial burden. Even so, the broad sharing of labour in the realm of necessity, and a related reduction in the amount of redundant labour that is currently performed every day, would mean that our collective work would not take that long – three to five hours of work for each of us on any given day, “although this work could be concentrated in certain portions of each week or in specific years of life” (86). In such an arrangement, all of us would have substantially more free time than we do currently, and moreover the benefits of technological innovations aimed at reducing human labour would accrue broadly to us all instead of narrowly to capital.

Just as we’d all share equally in necessary labour, so would we all benefit from access to the accordingly enlarged realm of freedom. The necessary conditions of daily living covered adequately, the rest of our time would be available for what we’d like: “everyone is free to develop their individuality” (90). The possibilities are endless. Benanav’s suggestions, which we can imagine were included precisely to hint at the extent of our freedom as enjoyers of post-scarcity, include mural painting, waterslide building, and inventing new musical instruments. Individual development would have its own broad social benefits, too. Ingenuity and creativity, whether brought to bear in scientific, artistic, or other areas, would cease to be wasted on account of bad luck. Accidents of birth or circumstance would no longer pose such great barriers to individuals, and accordingly we would all stand to benefit from any number of innovations and achievements across the areas of human endeavour. In this way, the realm of freedom would interact with the realm of necessity, as improvements and ideas developed in one realm migrate over to the other. All of this would take place, finally, without the growth imperatives that drive capitalism. Dynamism in the realm of freedom would be propelled not by the broad grow-or-die logic that animates capitalism at scale, nor by the work-or-die logic that functions in most of our individual lives. Association and labour in the realm of freedom would be voluntary.

This all means that life in conditions of post-scarcity would be “composed of overlapping partial plans” (92). Planning is a feature of Benanav’s prescriptions, but central planning of the twentieth century kind is not on the table. Still, given the emergency we face, especially with regard to the climate, some kind of collective global effort would need to take top priority at the initial step: “The first thing people would actually do in a post-scarcity world…would be to put a large portion of humanity’s collective resources and intelligence to work to mitigate or reverse climate change, and to make up for the centuries of inequity that followed colonization” (92-93). In this way, Benanav addresses the urgency of our broad situation, even if his book is not quite so squarely addressed to the particular conditions of the coronavirus pandemic as is the work of both Tooze and Malm. To the extent that these books represent the same phenomenon, that of renewed interest in political envisioning on the left, they are impelled by shared recognition that things are bad, potentially very bad, and that whether our alternative horizons are merely better (Tooze and Malm) or best (Benanav), we should take them seriously as matters of action.

Also shared by each of these writers is an element of defensiveness. For Tooze, Malm, and Benanav alike, positive political prescriptions are accompanied by a version of the same caveat: the near-term prospects are not good, real-world conditions are not favourable, success is unlikely even if everything depends on it. Each proposal comes with a Not Anytime Soon Clause. Tooze: “radical reform is a stretch” (301). Malm: the “truth content” of the tenets of war communism lies “in their remoteness from any currently discernible trajectory” (95). Benanav spends the most time with the issue. In a five-page postscript entitled “Agents of Change,” he is clear that bringing about post-scarcity would depend on “the pressure of social movements, pushing for a radical reconstruction of social life” (95). Noting that it would be reasonable to doubt the likelihood of such a social movement emerging in the near-future, his optimism is dogged anyways. Even if the historic labour movement, the vanguard of yesteryear, is currently in a state of all but total defeat, there are signs of movements to come. Benanav lists several struggles that have unfolded, with real success, across the world since the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. Broadening those successes, and building on them, might offer a path towards post-scarcity. But crucially, “movements without a vision are blind” and unless social movements are directed towards the “conquest of production” – recall the precondition for Benanavian post-scarcity is the abolition of private property and monetary exchange so that productive life can be planned cooperatively – we can expect more of the same in a world of scarcity (99).

Even if Benanav is the most optimistic of the three, shared defensiveness to one degree or another about the practicality of politics beyond polycrisis is indicative of a core obstacle to would-be radical movements or to radical changes in the political-economic status quo. Any political prescription of the sort entertained here must encounter what the historian Anton Jäger has recently described as the problem of contemporary “hyper-politics.” If the 1990s and the 2000s were the era of “post-politics,” defined by the shared illusion that the most fundamental political questions facing us were largely settled, “hyper-politics” describes the emerging era in which everything is politicized again. While this might seem advantageous to any of us eager to escape the current emergency in a way that does not re-inscribe and re-entrench the same systems that got us to where we are, it’s not quite such good news. For Jäger, importantly, hyper-politics directs political energy into individualized channels. Along with “specific focus on interpersonal and personal mores,” we get “incessant moralism and incapacity to think through collective dimensions to struggle.”[8] A hyper-political world is thus one in which politics is everywhere and mass politics is nowhere.

If we understand the current political moment in these terms, perhaps Malm’s vision, surprising though it may seem, emerges as the most practical of the three considered here. Lacking vehicles for mass struggle, and having no time to spare, why shouldn’t we draw inspiration and guidance from a movement that revolutionized political and economic life in a continent-spanning empire, despite an incredible array of hostile forces aligned against it and without even anything resembling unity among would-be political allies? Alternatively, perhaps we could draw from the final sentences of Tooze’s book, which affirm the possibilities inherent in the current conjuncture. “If our first reaction to 2020 was disbelief,” Tooze writes, “our watchword in facing the future should be: ‘We ain’t seen nothing yet’” (305). In an unbelievable future, surely green social democracy is on the table. Maybe, finally, something like Benanavian utopianism is necessary to energize whatever movements would have to emerge to push us in that direction.

If status quo capitalism all but guarantees a future of never-ending polycrisis, something has to give. Who knows where exactly the breaking point will be? Time continues to be of the essence. Ultimately, what we glean from the defensiveness that accompanies the otherwise hugely ambitious prescriptions proffered by Tooze, Malm, and Benanav, is an awareness that, no matter how compelling our blueprints, the future will be made by the (re)alignments of historical forces. Any politics that takes us beyond polycrisis will be made real by people, in whatever organizational form, who act collectively to make the impossible possible.


[1] The work of Mike Davis stands out along these lines. See The Monster Enters: COVID-19, Avian Flu, and the Plagues of Capitalism (New York and London: OR Books, 2020). The Monster Enters is largely a re-issue, with some additional material, of Davis’s 2005 book, The Monster at our Door.

[2] Tooze notes “the head-turning spectacle of the IMF scolding a notionally left-wing Mexican government for failing to run a large enough budget deficit.” See Shutdown, 13.

[3] Perry Anderson, “Situationism à Lenvers?,New Left Review 119 (Sep-Oct 2019): 88.

[4] Tooze, “Ecological Leninism,” London Review of Books 43, 22 (18 November 2021), Link to Article.

[5] Malm’s tactical preferences have been criticized. In a highly critical review of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, James Wilt writes: “Malm is a scholar, not a cop, but this book veers awfully close to entrapment.” See James Wilt, “How to Blow up a Movement: Andreas Malm’s New Book Dreams of Sabotage but Ignores Consequences,” Canadian Dimension, 3 March 2021, Link to Article.

[6] Malm is careful to distinguish the ecological Leninist attitude towards the capitalist state from the classical Leninist one: Leninists of the twentieth century could entertain the idea that they had time to destroy the state before rebuilding it.

[7] It should be flagged that existing market conditions could still reasonably be explained by pandemic-caused (and thus transitory) conditions rather than by fundamentally altered structural dynamics.

[8] Anton Jäger, “How the World Went from Post-Politics to Hyper-Politics,” Tribune Magazine, 3 January 2022, Link to Article.