"We find ourselves at the back of a decade of broken promises"
"We find ourselves at the back of a decade of broken promises"
14th December 2021 / Article
By: Ashish Ghadiali
We find ourselves at the back of a decade of broken promises
"We find ourselves at the back of a decade of broken promises"
Widely derided as a “talking shop” that failed to deliver on the climate action we need, the pageant around COP26 – the UN’s 26th “Conference of the Parties” that took place in Glasgow in December – pointed towards a deeper systemic malaise that’s emblematic of our times.
We find ourselves at the back of a decade of broken promises and inaction by international governments and transnational corporations that has seen the earth’s atmospheric temperatures rise to 1.2˚C above pre-industrial levels, driving us ever closer to the guardrail of 1.5˚C.
“1.5 to stay alive” was the slogan of campaigners from the world’s most climate vulnerable countries at COP14 in Copenhagen in 2009. The target was enshrined in the Paris Agreement at COP21 in 2015, then centred by leading climate scientists in the IPCC’s 2018 report as a crucial threshold not to be breached for the preservation of water, food, housing and biodiversity systems around the world.
Earlier this year, a blueprint for what it would take to achieve 1.5˚C came from the unlikely quarter of the International Energy Agency [IEA], highlighting the urgency of bold immediate term (2025) and short-term (2030) commitments to decarbonisation.
Yet the UK government, president of COP26, approached the moment focused on long-term goals of achieving Net Zero by 2050 and based on questionable approaches including carbon-offsetting schemes that can only deepen existing inequalities of power and productivity and on speculative technological solutions that to-date remain unproven.
The strategy represented a failure of imagination of epic proportions, reflected too in questions of resource allocation where G7 leaders, including self-proclaimed climate champion Joe Biden, attempted to spin a victory out of plans to come good on a 12-year old (broken) promise to commit $100 billion a year in climate finance.
Given that during this past decade of rising global temperatures, with an increased frequency of extreme weather events, costs of loss and damage alone have now risen to in excess of $150 billion a year, the proposal that was on the table amounted to little more than sign-off on a deficit that climate breakdown runs deep through the global economy. (Though even on this they failed to deliver.)
So here’s the reality check. Based on existing rates of carbon emissions, as corroborated by the most recent report of the IPCC, we will breach 1.5˚C within a decade – driving food scarcity, conflict, forced migration and continued economic breakdown around the world.
These effects will incur costs that will escalate and will be felt most by future generations (our children’s children) and by communities living on the frontlines of climate breakdown who are, above all, black and brown people living in the global south.
The failure to adequately plan and mitigate against those costs, alongside the challenge of decarbonisation, needs to be read now as a failure of governance that will perpetuate and exacerbate the inequalities of a 500-year old history of empire and racial capitalism.
It’s this deeper system, of empire’s inequality, that lies at the roots of both COP26 in all its failures, and of the 21st century’s environmental crisis itself. It now demands its transformation.
Ashish Ghadiali is a filmmaker and activist who organises with the climate justice collective Wretched of the Earth. He is a member of the co-ordinating committee of the COP26 civil society coalition and a commissioning editor at Lawrence and Wishart Books where he’s developing a new Soundings imprint, to be launched with a slate of books on Race and Ecology in 2022. He was formerly Race Editor, then Co-Editor of Red Pepper magazine (2017-2020) and part of the team that set up the Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp (in 2006).
Ashish’s 2016 feature documentary, The Confession, explored the geopolitical arcs of the War on Terror through the testimony of former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg. The film was described by The Guardian as “a documentary of great clarity and gravitas” and by Sight and Sound as “an interrogation of the very nature of truth-telling, freedom and responsibility”. Ashish is currently developing new projects for film and TV with BBC Studios and BBC Films and is a regular contributor to The Observer New Review.
This piece was commissioned as part of the Contextualising Climate Crisis series.
"The question is - what exactly is it that the Brexit vote and Trump’s..."
"The question is - what exactly is it that the Brexit vote and Trump’s..."
15th May 2017 / Article
The Crisis of Cosmopolitanism
By: Professor Jeremy Gilbert
The question is - what exactly is it that the Brexit vote and Trump’s election mark the crisis of?
"The question is - what exactly is it that the Brexit vote and Trump’s..."
‘The Crisis of Cosmopolitanism’, an essay by Professor Jeremy Gilbert unearths the roots of the Brexit-Trump crisis in the neoliberal politics of the Third Way, and reflects on the continuing relevance of Hall’s ideas. The essay began life as a talk given at the launch of the book Stuart Hall: Selected Political Writings at the University of East London’s Stratford campus in March 2017.
For Stuart Hall.
The Crisis of What?
‘Crisis’ is a word that gets overused, not least by the likes of me. But if any year in recent memory marked some kind of crisis for both British and American politics and culture, it was 2016. And nobody taught us how to think through crises in general, or gave us the tools with which to understand this one in particular, more surely than Stuart Hall.
The question is – what exactly is it that the Brexit vote and Trump’s election mark the crisis of? There are several ways of answering this. Clearly, on one level, they mark the termination of a certain professional political class’ capacity to manage the sphere of formal politics. Cameron and Clinton, like Renzi in Italy, represent a technocratic elite committed to neoliberalism, globalisation, social liberalism and aspirational culture. They also share a commitment to a specific form of cosmopolitanism, that tends to favour open borders, multiculturalism and global mobility, provided they take forms which are always compatible with aspirational individualism. What we might call ‘neoliberal cosmopolitanism’ is happy for individuals to travel the world in search of work or profit – in fact it insists that they should. What it does not want is for those individuals to develop strong bonds of solidarity with others, either at home or far away, which might encourage them to think or organise in any way that could inhibit the smooth accumulation of capital. Because above all, this faltering professional political class is dedicated to serving the interests of it masters on Wall Street and in the City of London.
It is this professional political class first and foremost which, in the second half of 2016, appeared to completely lose control of the situation. This was true at least at the level of the nation state and of government’s capacity to manage and derive legitimacy from a general sense of national community, purpose and preferences (what Gramsci calls the ‘national-popular’). It is notable that at the level of the supra-national – the EU, the IMF, etc – the technocratic class has not shown any signs of wavering in its commitment to unadulterated neoliberalism, or its capacity to go on implementing it (although there have been disagreements about the scale and intensity of its implementation). This latter point might explain why, at present, the corporate masters whom these technocrats serve do not seem to be particularly alarmed by the failures of their viceroys in Washington and Westminster. Whoever or whatever this is a crisis for – it isn’t a crisis for the major corporations, the hedge funds or the banks. Or at least not yet.
But it is also not a crisis for the national political classes alone. Because the election of Trump and the Brexit vote have clearly been experienced as traumatic defeats not only for the specific members of those elite cadres (represented in the UK by the anguished Tony Blair), but also for many members of the liberal middle classes and of the radical metropolitan left. And the latter – the members of the radical metropolitan left – define themselves against the neoliberal political class as much as against anything else. So what is it that they have in common with that political class which renders this a shared crisis for all of them?
The answer lies, I think, in their shared commitment to certain forms of cosmopolitan culture and ethics. In fact, I would suggest that this shared commitment has been crucial in persuading sections of the population, especially in the major cities, who might otherwise have proven more resistant to neoliberal hegemony, to acquiesce to it more-or-less passively during long periods, especially under the Blair, Clinton and Obama regimes. The fact that such governments have at least been hostile to explicit racism and xenophobia – which have never been fully absent from popular news media or from the politics of the populist right – has played a significant role in diffusing popular resistance from some of those communities most historically inclined to organise against systematic exploitation. Despite all their other differences, these groups have shared with the neoliberal elite – and with sections of the suburban middle classes – an uneasy consensus in favour of open borders, liberal feminism, sexual liberalism and multiculturalism. It is specifically this cosmopolitan consensus which collapsed – or at least lost its power to define the political mainstream – in 2016. Despite coming from the heart of the political class herself, it is May’s rejection of neoliberal cosmopolitanism, in her embrace of Brexit, that has enabled her to distance herself from that failing technocratic elite while entirely marginalising the metropolitan left, thereby claiming ownership of the British political sphere.
I think this is a crucial situation to understand, and one that requires careful analysis. As Stuart Hall showed in some of his most acute and important political writing, issues relating to ‘race’ and immigration, while having been factors of British political discourse since the sixteenth century, emerged in a specific form in the post-war period to become crucial to objects of social contestation in the 70s and 80s . As he showed more clearly than anyone, Thatcherism specifically connected the economics of neoliberalism with an authoritarian populism, depending for its legitimacy on appeals to racism and to anti-immigrant, anti-welfare rhetorics that were deliberately amplified and circulated by the popular press. Anti-feminism and homophobia, normally coded in terms of appeals to ‘traditional’ ‘family values’, were also crucial elements of this assemblage. This obviously provoked violent reactions from certain sections of the left, and from the broader social groups whose interests they most closely represented.
The Rise of Neoliberal Cosmopolitanism
What marked the distinctive politics of the ‘Third Way’ – the name given in the 1990s to the programmes of Clinton, Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder – was its disconnection of neoliberal economics from social conservatism. Instead of authoritarian populism, the Third Way embraced neoliberal cosmopolitanism. I always remember Stuart remarking, some time in the early 2000s, how disconcerting this had initially been. He said that Tony Blair had seemed like he might be a welcome change from previous Labour leaders because ‘he looked like someone who might have a gay person to dinner’. That feeling of slight disorientation, and that certain sense of relief, which even Stuart admitted to, I think explains a great deal about the subsequent reactions of key sections of the Left to the Blair, Clinton, and later Obama regimes. It’s not that all of the problems with them were not on full display. It’s not that we didn’t oppose, complain, resist and protest where we could. But those of us doing so were often very isolated and completely unable to effectuate significant change, in part because the broader social groups who had once been mobilised against Thatcherism were largely passive in the face of generally rising living standards and the absence of a clearly authoritarian cultural agenda from government.
These constituencies are mostly based in our multicultural cities, and are made of groups of people historically influenced by the politics of the New Left and by the radicalisation of trade unionism and municipal socialism in the 70s and early 80s. They include public sector workers and members of the more militant trade unions, as well as low paid and precarious workers in many sectors who are influenced by the culture of the urban milieu in which they live. Altogether they add up to a far more considerable section of the population than was widely believed prior to the emergence of Corbynism, which has made this ‘metropolitan left’ distinctively visible for the first time in many years.
Historically, of course, these social and political groups have not been bound together by any commitment to neoliberal individualism, and have tended to look for far more democratic, egalitarian and collectivist answers to the question of how to live together in a globalised, liberalised world. The original use of the term ‘multiculturalism’ was never supposed to designate, as Blairites like Trevor Phillips would later claim, a policy of encouraging communities to live parallel but separate lives. When deployed by progressive local government bodies in the 70s and 80s, the term was generally taken to imply a policy which assumed that interaction and intermixing between different cultural and ethnic groups, in order to build general cross-community solidarity, was the ultimately desired objective. It was a cosmopolitan acknowledgement of the inevitably hybrid nature of all identities, of what Stuart would call, quoting Salman Rushdie, ‘our mongrel selves’. This was an idea directly influenced by forms of ant-racist, anti-imperialist and Black Power politics, which always understood cosmopolitanism not simply as an end in itself, but as a necessary feature of any real culture of working class solidarity in a multi-ethnic society and an internationalised economy. The idea was never simply to give everyone an equal chance to become a successful liberal subject of advanced consumer capitalism.
The same can be said of radical forms of feminism and sexual politics. For example in the early 70s the British Gay Liberation Front famously rejected the terms of the Wolfenden report (the government report recommending the decriminalising of homosexual acts between consenting adults) because it was predicated on the classical liberal claim that sex was a private matter. Heavily influenced by the feminist assertion that ‘the personal is political’, the GLF argued for sexuality as a feature of human life that should be politicised and democratised – subject to open discussion, negotiation, experimentation and evaluation – not simply confined to the de-politicised sphere of the private. The women’s movement was always predicated on a set of similar claims that issues as intimate as sex itself must be up for discussion and debate, if it is to be possible to address the most basic and intense forms of oppression. At the same time, the movement made a set of claims and demands which, in countries like the US And the UK, have been achieved or not almost precisely to the extent that they can be contained within a neoliberal policy regime. Equal access to the labour market for qualified professional women without children? Pretty much. Socialised free 24-hour childcare? Forget it.
Despite the obvious gaps between these democratic aspirations and what neoliberal cosmopolitanism was prepared to offer, the voices still calling for the former became very weak and isolated in the 1990s and 2000s. Even in relatively protected areas such as universities, forms of personalised identity politics often substituted for any kind of movement-oriented radicalism. There were many reasons for this and the main one was the sheer weakness of the global Left after the massive defeats that it suffered in the mid 1980s. My purpose here is not blame anyone for this situation, but to understand its effects.
One such consequence was that there was no collectivist alternative offered to those other social constituencies who increasingly found themselves losing out from the implementation of Third-Way cosmopolitan neoliberalism. Working class citizens in impoverished post-industrial regions not only did not see any serious attempts to rebuild their local economies, but experienced rising levels of immigration, especially from countries joining the EU from the former Soviet bloc, as an uninvited imposition. As such, and with much encouragement from the popular press, it easily became an explanation and a metonym for all of their grievances and sense of disenfranchisement.
I think it is essential to be very careful and clear in our analysis of what takes place in such situations. There are clearly important strands of genuine racism and genuine xenophobia (though I’m not sure that the two are always the same thing) informing British political culture, as Stuart showed us with such extraordinary acuity. But I think that these strands are often quite latent and are often activated by other, more immediate grievances. And in this case I think the grievance is one which is simply barely registered by a broader political culture within which the very idea of democracy has suffered a degree of degradation, as liberal individualist norms have become so hegemonic as to be almost invisible. That grievance is simply this: nobody asked them. Nobody asked these people if they wanted a significant cultural recomposition of their communities and nobody talked to them about why it might be happening and why it might be beneficial or necessary and on what terms it might be managed so as to make it feel like less of an immediate threat.
Community, Democracy, Liberalism
I know that many people reading me say this will already be feeling uncomfortable, even slightly shocked, and I would ask you to reflect for a moment on why that might be the case. If I were talking about the members of a housing co-op, then the idea that they might be consulted before new members join their community would not be seen as shocking by anyone. So why is it shocking to consider the possibility that members of an ordinary local community might be given some such say? We might tell ourselves that it is because of our fear that such communities might make decisions informed by racism or xenophobia. I have several responses to make to this.
The first is that I’m not sure that is the reason for a certain basic, intuitive rejection of this idea from many middle-class British people, including those who might think of themselves as left-wing. I would suggest that in fact the first reason for such a response is that many of our assumptions – too many – are shaped by a tradition of liberal individualism which has a very impoverished idea of the public, while regarding the domain of the private as sacrosanct and inviolable. From this perspective, it is simply a vulgar idea to have any opinion at all about who your neighbours are. One is supposed to be supremely indifferent to the question of whether one has any cultural commonality with them, because to have any feeling at all about the matter is to break the cardinal rule of minding one’s own business. Of course, minding one’s own business is much easier for a homeowner with a private garden than a council-flat occupant whose only outdoor spaces is a park shared with all of their neighbours. But that is precisely why both traditional liberalism and neoliberal individualism tend to the view that, among other things, nobody can really be a successful human being if they are not a homeowner with a private garden.
Of course for most people reading to this, there will be something much more complicated going on. Most of us live in highly multi-cultural and international urban environments and we positively welcome it. We are not just indifferent to having neighbours who might be different from ourselves. We actively welcome it as an enriching, educational and entertaining aspect of our lives. The lack of any direct input into the question of how our communities are composed is not experienced by us as directly disempowering, because we have the resources – educational, social, cultural and material – which enable us to benefit directly from a culture of free movement and to constitute robust networks of friendship and support which are not dependent on locality. We don’t need strong local ties but where we are able to form them, we get a special and real sense of empowerment from our ability to do so despite and across differences of culture, ethnicity, age and ideology.
The problem is that people who don’t have those resources, outside of the metropolitan centres, do not experience the situation in the same way, and they generally do not get much sympathy from us when they express that. What they have experienced, at least until recently, is a culture in which various agents – from government and corporations to whatever representatives of the metropolitan left they might happen to encounter – are basically just telling them that they ought to be more like them, and more like us; and that if they were, then everything would be all right. And I think that we, the metropolitan left, have been largely complicit with this. We have been complicit with a situation in which neoliberal cosmopolitanism has been imposed on communities both as an ideology and as the lived reality of immigration appearing to lead to increased competition for access to resources. We have been complicit mainly because we have been too weak and disorganised to be anything else, but partly because we didn’t really have a problem with cosmopolitanism being imposed on people – even if it was neoliberal cosmopolitanism – because we believe very sincerely that cosmopolitanism as such is a good thing.
Well, with the Brexit vote, as with Trump’s election in the US, we have come up against the limit of this complicity. At the same time, the metropolitan Left, in the form of Corbynism in the UK, the Sanders campaign in the US, and the new left in various parts of Europe has already withdrawn its consent for the broad cosmopolitan-neoliberal consensus. So it is no surprise at all that, with the power of the right-wing press behind it, it is the anti-cosmopolitanism of the Brexit agenda which has made the most headway amongst those disenfranchised voters. The question is – what can we do about it?
For Democratic Cosmopolitanism
The answer, I think, is to return to the animating spirit of the New Left. This spirit will always insist on politicising and democratising issues which conservatism, liberalism, neoliberalism and Labourism (to name, I think, all four of Stuart’s key objects of opposition throughout his career) would like to keep locked in a discursive space which is de-politicised and not democratic. Because let’s be clear about this. When the Right ‘plays the race card’ (to use an appropriately vintage term for such an antiquated manoeuvre), they do not, as some liberals like to object, ‘politicise’ race or immigration in any real sense. They do not open these issues up for interrogation and examination – they merely seek to use them to close down any proper discussion of the issues at stake. Our response should not be merely a liberal depoliticisation of the issues to counter a conservative depoliticisation – it should be a proper politicisation of them. Most importantly this would mean we, the metropolitan Left, developing, or recovering a robust democratic politics which is cosmopolitan, but without predicating that cosmopolitanism on any commitment to liberalism.
What this would mean in practice would be something complex, uncertain, possibly frightening, something, to misuse another famous phrase of Stuart’s, ‘without guarantees’. In short it would mean demanding and initiating processes whereby communities around the country could actually be engaged in meaningful discussion about issues such as globalisation, the EU, international conflict, etc, and empowered to take some ownership over the policies affecting the composition of their own communities, while being given access to information about these issues through channels not controlled by Murdoch, Dacre et al. It would mean opening ourselves up to the risk that there might be genuine racism and xenophobia out there, as Stuart always said there was, but also having enough confidence in our own convictions to believe that we could actually win support for our positions if we articulated them explicitly, rather than having some distorted neoliberal version of them imposed on unwilling communities on our behalf.
The importance of recognising this as a distinctive position has never been greater than it is today. We can see this if we consider the problems inherent in most of the available responses to the political and social changes to which I have referred. There have effectively been two such types of response prevalent on the political Left in Britain in recent times. The first is simply to insist that Blair was right – in the world of the twenty-first century, we face a choice between a cosmopolitan neoliberalism and various kind of revanchist nativism; nothing else is really on the table. Neoliberal cosmopolitan centrists, such as Macron in France, present themselves as the only realistic bulwark against a rising tide of proto-fascism, and their projects as the only achievable form of modernisation. Where they cannot plausibly play that role any longer, they appear willing to allow the Right to gain ascendancy rather than permit the Left to take leadership of a new coalition which might resist conservative nationalism. The Parliamentary Labour Party’s sabotage of the Corbyn project – and The Democratic National Committee’s strenuous efforts to prevent Sanders from winning the presidential nomination, despite polls showing that he would have beaten Trump amongst the very blue-collar voters who eventually handed him the White House – followed precisely the same logic.
The other typical response to the situation that we have been describing is one which argues for the Left actively to reject cosmopolitan values in favour of some kind of progressive nativism. In the UK, advocates for ‘Blue Labour’ have argued that the Labour Party should present itself as the protector of communities whose integrity and way of life have been threatened by globalisation, neoliberalism and multiculturalism, advocating for immigration controls on the grounds that free movement of labour only facilitates the exploitation of workers. Perhaps the most intellectually ambitious thinker to have been associated with this current, Jon Cruddas M.P., specifically identifies cosmopolitanism with the politics of Blairism and other ‘Third Way’ projects of the 1990s. Cruddas makes a strong case that the Left simply cannot entirely abandon ‘ownership of political categories such as home, community and nation’ to the political Right. Although he explicitly argues for an ‘inclusive’ patriotism, Cruddas seems to counterpose this to any form of cosmopolitanism.
The problem with this approach, as interesting as it is, is that it tends to argue as if neoliberal cosmopolitanism were the only form of cosmopolitanism that had ever existed or could ever be imagined. But this rather seems to overlook the possibility that communities might have coherent relationships to each other, to their localities and their histories, which are also informed by a commitment to open relationships with others. The history of human culture is full of examples of violent and exclusive tribalism, but it also furnishes many examples of cultures wherein hospitality to strangers is regarded a key normative ethic. Critics of contemporary cosmopolitanism seem to struggle with taking seriously the fact that for many inhabitants of cities like London and Glasgow – including many poor and working-class people – cosmopolitanism is just as real and authentic a characteristic of our identities, our histories and our communities as localism and nativism might be for others.
In fact this is a key reason why the emergence of Corbynism came as such a shock to so many political commentators: they simply didn’t believe, and still don’t believe, that the culture of the metropolitan left has any kind of reality or existential purchase. In this, they are simply, demonstrably mistaken. There is a long history of what Stuart, among others called ‘vernacular cosmopolitanism’ – what Mica Nava has called ‘visceral cosmopolitanism’ – in the everyday lives and popular culture of urban and suburban Britain, which cannot be dismissed from any attempt to make sense of that history or the culture which it has produced.
What I’m arguing, in short, is that while neoliberal cosmopolitanism clearly has to be rejected, it would be a mistake to throw out the cosmopolitan baby with the neoliberal bathwater. The alternative is for us to reclaim the idea of a democratic cosmopolitanism. By ‘democratic’ it is crucial to appreciate that we cannot simply mean ‘demotic and widely available’. A widely-available demotic cosmopolitanism is precisely what cosmopolitan neoliberalism offers as one of the principle rewards for participation in contemporary consumer culture. Anybody can buy themselves a bit of cosmopolitan culture – ordering a take-away, taking a cheap holiday, downloading music from around the world – provided they have the means. A democratic cosmopolitanism must imply something more than this. ‘Democratic’ in this sense must designate a certain rejection of individualism and privatised culture in favour of the idea that people should be able to deliberate, make decisions and take action as members of groups, about the things that affect their lives. The appeal of Brexit for almost everyone who voted for it is the feeling – however misplaced – of democratic efficacy that it offers them. It’s no accident that ‘take back control’ became the Brexit slogan. The Left will never counter it without offering people more control than Brexit does. But there is no future either for the Left in going along the with fairy-tale that the democratic agency people so desperately want will actually accrue to them simply by virtue of laving the European Union. Only a truly democratic politics, willing to confront entrenched inequalities of power in both the economy and our venerable political institutions, could take us beyond the current impasse for the Left.
What would it even mean to make such a politics the basis for a political programme in relation to issues such as Brexit and UK immigration policy? I don’t claim to have all the answers to this question, but I do insist that it is the right question, and that is a start. I suspect that any political programme informed by this analysis would have to begin with our leaders acknowledging both that the Brexit vote was a democratic one which must be accorded some legitimacy, and the demonstrable fact that it was shaped by a 30-year campaign of propaganda and misinformation by the right-wing press. I suspect that policy ideas which have barely been discussed in this country, such as the regional devolution of immigration policy, would have to be considered. If Stoke wants to reject immigrants but London wants to welcome them, then why not? Perhaps this would force government to address the desperate inequality within urban centres like London, rather than effectively forcing immigrants to move to parts of the country where property and labour are cheap. Obviously all kinds of objections could be made to such an idea, but this is merely an example. I strongly suspect that a government committed to the kind of project that I am proposing would have to implement a large-scale programme of political education and public deliberation in order to try to overcome the demonstrable ignorance of the public on a number of crucial issues, before making any attempts to shift the political direction away from euroscpetic nativism. Either way, these are the kinds of questions which a democratic cosmopolitanism would raise, and that almost nobody in mainstream British politics is raising today at all. A rare and valuable exception, deserving of all our support, has been the Take Back Control project (https://takebackrealcontrol.com/about/) organised by The World Transformed (http://theworldtransformed.org) an inspiring and inspired series of participatory political education events organised specifically in Leave-voting areas this year.
Such a politics must obviously take seriously the conditions which gave rise to Brexit and the reasons why so many have been alienated from the cosmopolitan neoliberal agenda of the Third Way. This is why I doubt that those political and social groups still committed to that project and its assumptions are ever likely to be sympathetic to a genuinely democratic alternative, however genuinely cosmopolitan it may be. Their inability and unwillingness to process the situation was made clear during the period immediately following the Brexit vote, when Labour MPs and their supporters took to blaming Jeremy Corbyn’s supposed lack of enthusiasm during the Referendum campaign for the failure of enough working class voters to support Remain.
This is a position so absurd that it is difficult to discuss it in measured terms. For one thing, it was put forward by precisely the same sets of people who repeatedly complained that Corbyn could not connect with ‘ordinary’ voters (so how would his greater enthusiasm for EU membership have persuaded them?). More fundamentally, it simply ignored altogether all of the history which I have referred to here, as well as ignoring some key contextual facts. One of these was Corbyn’s historic euroscpeticism, which he had never hidden. Another was the fact that the referendum campaign was being fought while memories were still fresh – especially on the radical Left – of Syriza’s humiliation by the EU heads of state. This understandably dampened the enthusiasm of many on the Labour left for EU membership, or at least their emotional ability to campaign vigorously for it.
It was clear enough, given how irrational it was, that this blaming of Corbyn was never motivated by any genuine belief that Brexit was Corbyn’s fault. In actuality it was motivated by the fact that, to a certain cosmopolitan neoliberal elite, Corbyn represented something similar to Brexit. What both Corbyn’s capture of the Labour leadership, and Leave’s victory in the referendum, represented, was the end of their capacity to dictate the political and cultural agenda for the UK, including the Labour Party. This was a privilege which they had long since come to take for granted, and they are never likely to be reconciled to giving up any of those privileges at all. That is why, in the medium to long term, I suspect that a democratic cosmopolitan politics is more likely to find support amongst the working-class communities who recently voted Leave than among the furious disenfranchised elites who assumed that EU-membership, like control of the Labour Party, would always be their birthright. It is never likely to be in their material interests to endorse a genuinely democratic, genuinely egalitarian form of cosmopolitan politics
But I think that this is precisely the kind of politics that Stuart’s analyses and their informing assumptions were always implicitly committed to – experimental, future-oriented, and radically democratic; never merely defensive, never merely complacent with the limited forms of liberation offered to us by advanced consumer capitalism. Stuart’s analyses of authoritarian populism in the popular press of the 70s remain astonishingly relevant today. Brexit is simply the ultimate end result of exactly the campaign for right-wing xenophobic populism which he saw beginning then and which, frankly, the Left has never had any organised plan to counter. His arguments for a politics of New Times which would be radically democratic, technologically liberated, egalitarian and cosmopolitan at the same time remain more relevant than ever in a moment when the emergence of ‘platform capitalism’ makes both the possibilities of such a future, and the dangers implicit in every possible alternative to it, more vivid and immediate than ever. As we carry on the struggles for democracy, for justice, for cosmopolitanism and for socialism, into the 21st century, there will be no more important set of tools than those he has left us with, for many years to come.
 I see from a quick google search that I didn’t invent this phrase. Peter Gowan has used it widely, but more in the International Relations sense of ‘cosmopolitanism’, designating an internationalist approach to relations between states, than in the sense of specific particular modes of living in specific local environments – see https://newleftreview.org/II/11/peter-gowan-neoliberal-cosmopolitanism. Emily Johansen uses the phrase in a much more similar way to how I am using it here, in her 2015 article ‘The Banal Conviviality of Neoliberal Cosmopolitanism’ in Textual Practice , Volume 29, No.2, London: Taylor & Francis.
 Stuart Hall (1978) ‘Racism and Reaction’; (1982) ‘The Empire Strikes Back’; (1992) ‘Our Mongrel Selves’ in Stuart Hall (2017) Selected Political Writings: The Great Moving Right Show and Other Essays. Durham: Duke University Press.
 Selected Political Writings pp. 275-82.
 Selected Political Writings chapters 5,9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 20, 21
 See http://www.compassonline.org.uk/publications/reclaiming-modernity-beyond-markets-beyond-machines/
 Nava, Mica (2007) Visceral Cosmopolitanism: London, Bloomsbury.
 https://www.ipsos-mori.com/DownloadPublication/1634_sri-perceptions-and-reality-immigration-report-2013.pdf; http://www.septicisle.info/labels/migrants.html; http://www.anorak.co.uk/422965/news/hurrah-for-the-migrants-daily-mail-cheers-for-murderous-scrounging-asylum-seeking-scum.html; Peter J Anderson ‘A Flag of Convenience? Discourse and Motivations of the London-Based Eurosceptic Press’ in European Studies: A Journal of European Culture, History and Politics, Volume 20, Number 1, 1 January 2004, pp. 151-170(20); Oliver Daddow ‘The UK media and ‘Europe’: from permissive consensus to destructive dissent’ in International Affairs 88: 6 (2012) 1219–1236
 Stuart Hall (1989) ‘The Meaning of New Times’ in Selected Political Writings.
 https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/sites/default/files/nf8485_11murray_gilbert_goffey.pdf; Nick Srnicek (2016) Platform Capitalism, Cambridge: Polity
"Environmental politics must involve praxis."
"Environmental politics must involve praxis."
1st December 2021 / Article
Praxis: A Graphic Novel
By: Aneesa Khan
Environmental politics must involve praxis.
"Environmental politics must involve praxis."
Born in South India and raised in Oman, Aneesa Khan joined the climate justice movement as a student with a passion for environmental law and creative storytelling. She started by organising for climate reparations at the UN climate talks where she worked to make sure the voices of black, brown, indigenous, and Global South youth were heard loud and clear over those of polluting industries. She has multiple years experience of organising in the US and globally as an activist with Friends of the Earth International, The Wilderness Society, and most recently, SustainUS – a youth-led climate justice organisation where she served as the Executive Director. She currently works as the Communications Officer for Oil Change International to expose the true cost of fossil fuels on people and the planet. She specialises in telling stories of environmental inequity and injustice through graphic design. Aneesa holds a BA in Human Ecology from College of the Atlantic and a Masters in Environmental Policy and Regulation at The London School of Economics.
This piece was commissioned as part of the Contextualising Climate Crisis series.
"the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political..."
"the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political..."
11th October 2020 / Article
The Coronavirus Pandemic and its Meanings
By: Michael Rustin
the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political and psychoanalytic
"the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political..."
The Article has been published in the Revista Brasileira de Psicanálise volume 54 numero 2 , 2020
This article examines the meanings of the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political and psychoanalytic. It suggests that the concept of “combined and uneven development” is relevant to understanding the events which are now taking place. This is because the pandemic has brought together the genesis of a new disease in conditions where the interface between society and the natural world is unregulated, but also where modern forms of communication have enabled an unprecedentedly rapid spread of the disease to take place, across the entire globe. Multiple lines of social division are being exposed by the crisis, as social classes, ethnic populations, nations and regions are differentially harmed. Contrasting priorities, ideological in origin, are being revealed in governments’ response to the virus, in the commitment they give to the preservation of lives compared with other material interests.
In a second part of the article, psycho-social dimensions of the crisis are explored. A psychoanalytical perspective focuses on anxieties as these are generated by the extreme disruption and risks posed by the crisis. It is suggested that these are not only conscious but also unconscious, giving rise to destructive kinds of psychological splitting and denial, and disrupting capacities for reflective decision-making. It is argued that a loss of “containing” mental and social structures is now having damaging effects, and that their repair may be the precondition for constructive resolutions of a general social crisis.___
The Revista is a journal devoted to psychoanalysis, but the explanation of the causes and consequences of the pandemic (from which at the time of writing Brazil seems to be suffering most in all the world) has many aspects which are not best captured by psychoanalytic explanations. Before reflecting on how a psychoanalytic paradigm can engage with this ongoing tragedy, I would like to sketch out an understanding of the pandemic’s wider social and political dimensions. Surprisingly, a theoretical model which does illuminate the current situation is one set out by Leon Trotsky in his explanation of the distinctive attributes of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, in his history of the Russian revolution (1932). This was his “Theory of Combined and Uneven Development.” His argument was that what had made the revolution possible was the presence in what was essentially a backward Russian society of some exceptionally “modern” and developed sectors. Among these were a flourishing industrial capitalism, an organised working class, and an advanced intelligentsia, of whom the Bolsheviks and other communists, socialists and anarchists comprised one element. But what condemned the revolution to extreme difficulties, and ultimately, given the choices that were made, to its deformation and failure, was the fact that this “modern” segment existed within a system which mainly consisted of semi-feudal means of agricultural production (serfdom had only been abolished in 1861) an illiterate peasantry, religiosity and superstition, and an autocratic and brutal form of government by the Tsarist state. This was, even in when it was published in 1932, a prescient analysis of the situation which the revolutionaries had faced, and which led to the eventual defeat of their modernising project. Justin Rosenberg, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, has recently revisited this theoretical model (under the reversed name of Uneven and Combined Development) to explain contemporary geo-political developments.(Rosenberg 2013).
How can this theoretical model of change be useful in explaining a crisis as different from a social revolution as the current global pandemic? The explanation lies in the conjunctions of the effects of some highly advanced and some “early” and backward aspects of social and economic development, which are each relevant to these very different phenomena, a revolution and a pandemic. It seems likely that the virus had its biological origins in food markets in China in which trade in live animals captured from the wild and slaughtered without preventive hygiene at the point of sale, was combined with many other forms of commerce in domestic animals and other foodstuffs. It was possible in those conditions (as with earlier epidemics such as SARS) for a virus to cross species, perhaps with intermediate wild animal vectors such as bats. This is the “pre-modern” element of the situation, one which has probably had many precedents in the mutation of diseases.
Superimposed on this close contact in food markets between the organs and diseases of wild animal species, and their human traders, (which we describe as a pre-modern form of commerce) has been the exceptional speed of transmission of this disease, which has been due to the rapid flow of human beings across the globe that takes place in the highly-modern modern communications environment. This has been described by one sociologist of globalisation as a “space of flows”, a concept developed within the elaboration of the theory of globalisation by many scholars (e.g. Beck 2000, Castells 1998, Giddens 1991, Harvey 1989, Massey 2002 and Urry 2007) in recent decades. Many component features of globalisation were predicted within this model, including the rise of global trade, vast and almost instantaneous flows of finance capital, and the central role of information technology among its generative features., And, as its negative by-products or “feedbacks”, the emergence of “fundamentalist” resistances to modernisation, large flows of refugees, and even global terrorism. It has turned out that another consequence of this situation of combined over- and under-development has been the exposure of the entire world’s population, in the space of just six months, to a virus, Covid 19, which health and social systems have so far mostly been unable to suppress. Prior to Covid 19 there were other viruses, such as HIV, Sars, and Ebola, which have been barely contained, and from which insufficient lessons were learned. Of course plagues have always afflicted humankind, such for example as the “Spanish flu” which killed millions after the First World War. What is singular about this one is the exceptional scope and speed of its transmission. One can say that it is fortunate that it is not even more lethal in its effects than it is.
There are other aspects of “uneven development” relevant to the pandemic, in addition to the one I have mentioned. Its impact is disclosing large differences in the vulnerability of populations to the virus, and in the capacities of social systems to contain it. These differences are in part a function of relative material wealth, as has always been the case with the incidence of epidemics. It is much more feasible for privileged social groups to isolate themselves, or flee to relative seclusion, than it is for the poor, in particular for those living in absolute poverty. (It was common in cities in Renaissance Europe for elites to take refuge in rural retreats in this way.) These differences are also a consequence of the quality and amount of resources invested in public health systems – the availability of doctors, hospital beds, testing and tracing facilities, reliable data etc. But levels of material wealth – average per capita income – are by no means the only significant cause of variance in the harms caused by the virus. It appears that differences in the ideologies and power-structures underlying social systems are also critical in shaping its effects.
It is striking, for example, that European nations have for the most part achieved far better outcomes than are being achieved in the United States in the management of Covid 19. Within Western Europe, the United Kingdom however (excepting Scotland, which has an autonomous public health system) has done conspicuously worse than its European equivalents, after a period when Spain and parts of Italy were overwhelmed by the first impact of the virus. China and other nations in South-East Asia have been substantially more capable in taking action to contain its effects than most other areas of the world. States in India which already had effective public health systems (some of them with histories of Communist regional and city government) have achieved better outcomes than some which did not. Readers of this journal will need no reminding of the disaster now befalling Brazil, where denial of the public health responsibilities of a government, indeed of the reality of the disease itself, is combining with long-standing inequalities of condition to facilitate the epidemic spread of the disease.
It seems that differences in the moral foundations and beliefs within social systems, in particular within the groups that are dominant within them, are decisive in determining societies’ response to the impact of the virus. It is evident that in some societies the value assigned to the protection of lives, all lives, outweighs all other purposes, such that they have been willing to sacrifice or defer other goals in order that this life-preserving goal is first achieved. But in some other societies, or among their ruling elites, this has not been the case. Some societies and their governments appear to be willing to tolerate an incidence of infection and mortality from the virus, conceived presumably as “a fact of nature”, to a degree which others are not. Many societies believe that they can eliminate the virus entirely, or at least for all practical purposes, while others seem prepared to tolerate infection rates in their tens of thousands, in order that economic life can be allowed to continue or be resumed without hindrance. A further explanation of this difference lies in the fact that some societies have the willingness and capacity to offset the economic harms done to individuals when markets are suppressed, by collective measures of compensation, or employment-creation, while for others this is ideologically repugnant. The defining difference between these normative systems seems to lie in the value they assign to individuals’ freedom, at whatever cost its exercise may be to other individuals, compared with the value they assign to the health and well-being of all persons, to which they hold that some individuals’ freedom need on occasion to be subordinated. Such differences in fundamental concepts of “social solidarity” are also revealed in other areas of social life. How else can one explain why the United States tolerates so high an annual loss of life through the use of firearms, compared with similarly rich nations in Europe. The comparison is even worse in regard to death inflicted by police.
These differences in conceptions of social and moral solidarity do not map in any simple way on to a political spectrum of left and right, although to be sure they do sometimes coincide. Some Asian nations which are far from socialist, such as Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, have adopted socially-protective positions in their response to the Coronavirus, and of course China, which is ruled by a Communist party, has a substantially capitalist economy.
Many specific kinds of social fracture have emerged in those societies where a commitment to universal protection and well-being, in response to the virus, has been revealed to be lacking. It is striking that the specifically harsh burdens which have been inflicted on some sections of the population were not been anticipated. In the United Kingdom, two specific sub-populations were revealed to have been especially vulnerable to the virus. One of these was the elderly and infirm population of care homes, where the incidence of infection and death has been very high – some estimates say 20,000 out of 45,000 deaths by early July). Another were black and ethnic minority populations, which have also been afflicted in disproportionate numbers. There has to be recourse to explanations in terms of unconscious processes of denial (of social realities and people’s needs) and projection (of vulnerabilities and of attributions of value) adequately to account for these phenomena, which been deeply discriminatory in their effects. How could it be that a National Health Service in Britain would discharge elderly patients from hospitals to residential homes (“to free up beds” for Corona patients) without first testing them for infection, and without ensuring that care homes were shielded from infection? But it did these things, as other public health services (e.g. in Sweden) have also done. These decisions surely arose from an implicit belief that these elderly people were simply of lesser value than who were still young or in mid-life. The difference in the valuation of human beings has long been institutionalised in the separation in England and Wales between the system of “social care” for the elderly and infirm) and the National Health Service, in its funding and organisation. Health is a universal, relatively well-funded public service, “social care” is not.
The fact that the virus impacted so differentially, and so much for the worse, on members of Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) communities was another source of surprise, in particular as it was realised that this was especially evident among staff within the NHS who were working with Coronavirus patients. There have been many portrayals of the heroic work of National Health Service staff during the crisis, giving rise to a weekly ritual of public applause for them in British streets. In these reports, it has become evident how disproportionate is the number of ethnic minority doctors, nurses and care workers who have been taken ill or died. How could this be? it has been asked, and public inquiries have been set in train to discover the reasons. This situation then intersected with issues of police violence against black people which became world news, following the murder of George Floyd on May 25th in Minneapolis. So the impact of the pandemic on ethnic minorities has become linked to the broader Black Lives Matter campaign, giving rise to an enhanced and intense awareness of ethnic discrimination and inequality (“institutional racism” is one of its descriptions) in Britain, and of course also in the USA. Further racialised crimes have taken place in the UK as this crisis has developed. A probably-racially motivated murder of two young Asian-British women in London park (near to where I live) was followed by the circulation on social media of photographs (“selfies”) of the two dead women taken by two members of the Metropolitan Police, it appears for their own gratification. This event was deeply shocking even to the police authorities, causing almost as much offence as a physical assault.
It has become evident both in the USA, in Britain, and in other countries, that there are white racist groups who have now organised themselves organised in reaction to the movements for ethnic justice and redress. Demonstrations and campaigns against racial injustice are now frequently met with counter-demonstrations, giving rise to significant issues of public order. The conservative nationalist populism of Trump in the United States, and of Bolsanaro in Brazil, have these kinds of violent militancy embedded within their bases of support. The Boris Johnson government in Britain confines itself to the castigation of much protest by ethnic minority groups and their allies (for example the toppling of statues of former slave owners as in Bristol’s harbour) as threats to public order, while acknowledging the offensiveness to minority communities in particular of such commemorations of slavery. But different forms of public unrest are becoming joined up and superimposed on one another, as antipathy to racism, to the police as its perceived instrument, and to the virtual curfews of Covid 19 lockdowns, give rise to turbulent and sometimes violent encounters on the streets and even on some beaches.
A second major theoretical concept from the Marxist tradition which is useful for understanding this global situation is Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “conjuncture”, and its modern development by Stuart Hall (Hall et al. 1978) and other contemporary writers (Hall and Massey 2010). The idea of conjuncture denotes those historically specific circumstances in which different contradictions and conflicts within a social order become unexpectedly juxtaposed to, or superimposed upon, one another, sometimes giving rise to situations of great uncertainty and unpredictability. In such situations the “wars of position” which Gramsci characterised as the normal somewhat static state of relations between conflicting social blocs, can create the conditions for more sudden changes, through ”wars of movement”, from which rapid changes in the distribution of power can result. This may be through the mobilisation of large movements of protest, and through the “joining together” (through what Laclau and Mouffe (1985) described as the discursive construction of “symbolic equivalences” between fields of meaning) of different levels and agencies of social action. The moment of radical protest of 1968 has often been recognised as such a conjuncture, although it was one in which the left’s political hopes of it were defeated. Its cultural outcomes were however a different and more successful story.
The current pandemic amounts to a “conjuncture” in the way in which it is both revealing and juxtaposing varieties of conflict, such for example as the divisions and inequalities being revealed by the crisis, and the contrasting ways of managing or not managing it effectively. From this point of view, compare China’s or Germany’s response to the pandemic with Brazil’s or the USA’s. There are other crucial dimensions of the crisis which need to be added to those already referred to. The most important of these is the economic crisis in which the pandemic is plunging the entire world, which is going to be at least as deep as those of Great Depression of the 1930s and the financial crisis of 2007-8. This crisis will raise the question for governments of how its economic and social effects are to be responded to.
We need to remember in this context that precedents are far from encouraging. The crisis of the 1930s was not resolved, until after several nations had collapsed into Fascism, and after an exceptionally destructive World War which brought those Fascist regimes to an end. It was the war and preparations for it, rather than Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, exemplary as the latter was, which brought the Great Depression to an end. And although, after 2007-8 some measure of economic stability was restored, in good part thanks to the resilience of the Chinese economy, and some moderately positive steps were taken by the Obama government in the USA, little more than a partial stabilisation was achieved. Instead of the inclusive, redistributive economic adjustment of capitalist economies that was required to avert future crises (and which I at the time mistakenly believed governments would institute in their systems’ own interests) there was instead a reversion to “austerity economics”, with a period of contraction and stagnation which saw the rise of radical right wing populism in many nations, not least the USA, the UK, and Brazil. (I believe is was the regression of the global economy which ultimately made the situation of the left-of-centre government of Brazil which followed Lula’s unsustainable). Another crucial factor in all of this is the difficulty which formerly dominant “white” countries, and their elites, are having in adjusting to their relative decline in face of the rise of China and other emerging nations. This decline – which involves a challenge to “white supremacy”, demonstrations of impotence in failed wars and interventions (Afghanistan, Libya, Syria etc.), and inability to improve the living standards even of its own majority populations – is being experienced as traumatic. This situation gives rise to what psychoanalysts might call manic denials of reality and the rejection of rationality and truth itself, in the politics of the United States and those nations shaped by similar “structures of feeling (1).” These repeated flailings of the United States government (withdrawal from global arrangements which formerly served to assure its hegemony, the disruption of commerce and orderly economic relations through an almost indiscriminate use of sanctions, the President’s wild and incontinent utterances) are not the demonstrations of autonomy and strength they purport to be, but are wild responses to the traumas of decline and failure. We could add to this picture a problem which faces the world which is even deeper and more grave than the pandemic, that of climate change. In this situation it would be unwise to be unduly hopeful about the prospects for benign solutions to the problems brought about by the pandemic. However there are some more positive elements to be seen in the situation, where there remain some capacities for rational and constructive action. One might note, for example, that some years ago the problems of global warming and climate change were hardly recognised, while now at least some substantial action to avert their consequences is taking place.
Psychological Aspects of the Crisis
So far in this article, I have mainly discussed the aspects of the current crisis whose explanation lies in the domain of social structures and processes, rather than the spheres which might be of specific interest to psychoanalysts. The reason for this is my belief that the principal explanations of this crisis have to be sought in the dynamics of societies, rather than primarily in the psychological dispositions of individual actors. Individual fears, anxieties and enactments of individuals in situations like the present one, though entirely real are largely shaped by the social environments in which they are formed. It is differences between societies which cause and most fully explain what happens to the individuals within them, rather than it being the case that differences between individuals cause and most fully explain what happens to societies. The dispositions and personalities of figures such as Trump, Bolsanaro, and Johnson, of course have significant consequences for their societies (and for all of us). Nevertheless their attributes and characteristic kinds of action are best understood as the effects of their social milieus rather than as their cause. Freud (and those like Adorno (1951) who developed his analysis of Fascism) saw “leaders” as produced by the socio-psychological needs and collective transferences of their followers, rather than as the primary causes of their behaviours.
Nonetheless, one should ask, what does a psychoanalytic perspective add to our understanding of a crisis and conjuncture of the present kind? Is there a conception of unconscious mental processes, as these function at shared and collective levels of mind, which adds illumination, and needs to be incorporated within the framework of a socio-political analysis? Here is the broader problem of how one might bring about a theoretical integration of psychoanalytical and sociological understandings. which is a topic I have discussed elsewhere (Rustin 2016).
I believe the psychoanalytical concept most valuable in the understanding of the present crisis is Bion’s idea of “containment” (Bion 1975) and what arises from its presence or absence, its strength or its weakness. What the present crisis, with its overlapping and intersecting dimensions, is bringing about is the collapse of many “containing” structures, and the habits of mind and capabilities which depend on them. What is “contained”, in the psychoanalytic view, by containing structures are anxieties, both recognised and unrecognised, and both conscious and unconscious, which are not quite the same thing. What emerges when containment is lacking are many often extreme defences against anxiety, such as splitting and denial, the projection of feared threats and evils into others. and a reversion to paranoid-schizoid and narcissistic states of mind. Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion both believed that the capacity for reflection and thought, and for holding together in the mind the awareness of dispositions both to love and to hate, had their preconditions in a persons’ emotional and mental development. Klein thought of this as the attainment of “depressive” capabilities, or the “depressive position”. (Segal 1973, Rustin and Rustin 2017). Bion thought of it as the presence of a secure relation between “container and contained.” Such experiences of containment take place in the first instance in the earliest months and years of life, in the context of the intimate family. That is, in a relationship between infant and mother, but also between mother and father, father and infant, and between members of a larger family group, including siblings. This is the primary location or incubator of the capacity to form and maintain relationships, which once formed usually becomes extended beyond the sphere of the family into a wider environment of communities and workplaces. And also into establishing relationships, which have both an internal and an external dimension, with other kinds of “objects” which can have symbolic as well as emotional meanings, such as vocations, places, forms of art or science, cultural or social “goods”. Early experiences of containment are the micro-settings within which the capacities for life in society are developed and made possible.
Such micro-settings depend for their existence, however, on wider environmental contexts of security and well-being. In well-functioning societies these can often be taken for granted, to a greater or lesser degree, as the good-enough contexts for lives to be lived and for personal development to take place, and even adventures into the unknown to be embarked on. What happens when grave multiple crises such as those of the present occur is that such surrounding contexts, or conditions of existence, become deeply threatened and disrupted. In relation to the Covid 19 disease itself, we see trust in others, and also in governments, being eroded, as danger and risks to individuals and families grow. We now see many governments becoming concerned that the reserves of public trust and the compliance on which practical means of containing this disease (e.g. quarantines, the use of face-masks, social distancing, vaccination, caution public spaces) depend will be eroded, if people lose confidence in governments’ capabilities and actions. This breakdown of trust is already occurring in many places, and for understandable reasons.
Another level of disruption is occurs when particular social groups (e.g. people of colour), come to believe that the society in which they live, and especially holding power within it, neglects, mistreats and even brutalises them. Additional anxieties arise when when basic material security becomes endangered, for example through economic recession and unemployment. Further kinds of threat are experienced at the level of cultural identity, when it is felt that the symbolic worth of a group’s entire “imagined community” is put in jeopardy, for example through denigration by others, or by the perceived capture of power and privilege by competitors. Arlie Hochschild’’s book, Strangers in their Own Land (2016), showed the origins of the resentment of Republican voters in the American South in their feeling that they had been excluded from the opportunities offered by the “American dream” by the privileging of rival groups in society, located in their minds mainly in northern cities. Fintan O’Toole (2018) has described the emotional core of the Brexit campaign in England as made up of a combination of triumphalist omnipotence and masochistic victimhood and self-pity. Resentment towards “others” who are perceived to be in the ascendant, and the building of animosity towards such groups, are a principal resource of nationalists and populists like Trump for sustaining, often by demagogic means, their base of political support.
The crisis of “combined and uneven development” which I have characterised has both revealed and intensified many kinds of structural inequalities within and between nations. This crisis is giving rise to understandable and indeed justifiable demands for their redress. Some in this situation find themselves taking up highly radical and even utopian positions in asserting what now ought to be done. Some believe that the entire social system should be dismantled and started afresh, difficult as it is to give a feasible meaning to this idea. What we know, however, is that demands made of society from those lacking recognition and power are liable to provoke countervailing demands and reactions from those who currently possess it. Redistributions and adjustments of power and privilege to resolve substantially opposed and competing claims are usually difficult to achieve. Conflicts arising from such struggles can give rise to the risk of organised violence and social breakdown, as we have seen in the past. Strategies for reform and redress of inequalities and injustices need in my view to take account of the probability of such counter-reactions, and to find ways of limiting their severity and destructiveness.
I am inclined to believe that in the present crisis the restoration of a measure of “containing” government, which can begin tackle and resolve immediately critical problems (like those caused by the Corona virus and by global warming) is a pre-requisite for bringing about the many fundamental changes which the general condition of “combined and uneven development” makes desirable and necessary.
However, it should be noted that a concern with states of “containment” is not the only psychoanalytic preoccupation with a social condition which one might have. In an astute observation about Freud’s own writings, the sociologist Zigmunt Bauman (2009) noted that the main anxieties which preoccupy a society were subject to change, even between social epochs. Freud’s main preoccupation, Bauman wrote, was with the excessive repression of desires, and with the constraints imposed in his time on thought and action, especially in the sexual sphere. This was prior to the liberating effects of his own teaching on this cultural climate (2). Excessive repression was also a concern of Melanie Klein, as we see in her focus on the destructive effects on personalities of a persecutory super-ego. But in modern times, in Bauman’s view, the pendulum has swung far in the opposite direction, such that a dominant social anxiety now arises in regard what are perceived to be excessive freedoms of sexual expression and action. Thus we have almost phobic anxieties about the sexual safety of children, and about whether sexual initiatives in interpersonal life are to be experienced as aggressive or abusive, or are merely to be recognised as overtures and approaches without which no sexual relationship could ever come about. (Of course they can be either of these.) In the broader sphere, the additional scope for expression and communication which has been enabled by the expansion of social media seems to justify anxieties, about the diffusion of almost indiscriminate verbal aggression, through “trolling”, of which President Trump’s incessant and often abusive “tweeting” is a conspicuous example. In Britain at this time, intense conflicts are occurring about who has the right to define sexual identities, in particular those characterised as “trans” and involving decisions to change sexual identities as these are assigned at birth. One can believe that at the present time some moves towards the restraint of such unrestrined kinds of social media is desirable, even urgent. It is in this cultural climate that I believe a psychoanalytic focus on the “containing” end of the spectrum between freedom and control, has relevance. Times differ, and what is psychoanalytically indicated as being desirable and appropriate for such times may differ also.
Some of those with power, such as those in Trump’s administration, are seeking to call a halt to the processes of globalisation and its instruments, and thereby to hold on to the advantages they believe they already possess. My view is that the solution to these problems lies not in arresting the processes of globalisation, but rather in making these universal and comprehensive in their extent. This would aim at a form of combined and even rather than uneven development. (I’ve elsewhere imagined this as a “progressive modernisation.” (Rustin 2019) .
This is to imagine a world order in which, for example:
- The goals of good public health and the means to secure this become universal.
- In which the arrest of global warming becomes a common human task.
- In which the problems of unmanageable flows of refugees from impoverished and wartorn countries is dealt with not through constructing barriers and “beautiful walls”, but by enabling problems of poverty and disorder to be addressed in the regions from which refugees come.
- In which goals of economic development are set for the entire world, and not merely for individual nations.
It is only of course competent and well-supported governments, working together with each other, which could bring such a benign process about, in cooperation with other social, economic and cultural actors. It might seem an impossible prospect, though not necessarily so when one sees what Europe accomplished in the years after the Second World War, or indeed what the Chinese have been accomplishing, in regard to poverty and living standards, within their own national boundary.
Of course such goals are not far from those which have been advanced by many international agencies, and by visionary theorists of human development and “flourishing” such as Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen (1993) and which became embodied in the United Nations Human Development Index and Annual Reports.
And after all, are there other alternatives to global catastrophe?
- This term is Raymond Williams’s (1977) and refers to the collective mentalities which are generated in different configurations of relations between social classes.
Ernest Gellner, who had previously (1985) been a severe critic of Freud, wrote later in his work (1995) of the great debt which society owed to Freud, in the effect of his writing in diminishing social repression, and in thereby making possible wider experiences of pleasure and enjoyment.
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Michael Rustin is a Professor of Sociology at the University of East London, a Visiting Professor at the Tavistock
Clinic, and an Associate of the British Psychoanalytical Society. He has written widely on interconnections
between psychoanalysis, society and politics, in books including The Good Society and the Inner World (1991)
and Reason and Unreason (2001). His most recent books include Social Defences against Anxiety:
Explorations in a Paradigm (edited with David Armstrong, 2015); Reading Klein (with Margaret Rustin, 2017),
Researching the Unconscious: Principles of Psychoanalytic Method (2019) and New Discoveries in Child
Psychotherapy : Findings from Qualitative Research (edited with Margaret Rustin (2019.) He is an editor of
Soundings, a Journal of Politics and Culture.