Monday, June 7, 2010

Governing the biosphere

One of the problems with implementing national and global policy regimes toward mitigating carbon pollution is that while we can agree with how and even why such regimes are necessary, we are at the limits of current knowledges in attempting to understand anthropogenic global warming. This is Dipesh Chakrabarty’s essential argument about the disconnection between climate scientists’ almost universal urging of polities to take significant action to mitigate carbon pollution and the recent u-turn away from such political action after the Copenhagen Conference and in the face of a concerted attack on this climate science consensus by a small band of contrarians and so-called skeptics, aided, in Australia at least, by the immensely influential News Limited.
The complexities and, it must be said, uncertainties of climate science—a science which relies on limited data and whose findings are often projections into the future—have increasingly entered into what we might still want to call a public sphere, where they must compete with deeply embedded discourses that are antithetical to any project that takes anthropogenic global warming as its starting point. Before I get to what I think these discourses are, a more obvious point to make about why a policy response to anthropogenic global warming is currently fading is that media can more easily frame and tell a story of small heroic individuals holding onto their critical independence from a monolithic conspiracy in which government and self-interested scientists attempt to dupe a gullible public into implementing an authoritarian left-wing form of anti-market control. If media seek to dramatise events so that we more readily consume its productions, then the recent climate science believers versus skeptics battle can be seen as one example of this media form. Of course, the dramatizing of this debate into a two-sided battle has other motivations beyond the drive to sell newspapers and, ultimately, advertising to media consumers. There are other discourses at work in such Manichean oppositions, and it is to a consideration of these that I now want to turn.
It is important that we historicise this debate, and it is no surprise that the first periodizing move I will make is to assert that we are in the age of Neoliberalism. Still. Because despite what Kevin Rudd wrote in his Monthly essay about Neoliberalism back in 2008, and despite claims that the Global financial crisis is the death knell of Neoliberalism, as a set of practices and techniques that are combined with forms of reasoning and goals, Neoliberalism continues as the dominant governmentality, if not as the dominant ideology. The distinction I am making here between ideology and governmentality is essentially a Foucauldian one, and it seeks to cut through the seeming paradox of an essay in which Rudd professes his social democratic beliefs, offering a critical genealogy of Neoliberalism, while his government continues to practice key Neoliberal techniques of governing our conduct, such as an unemployment services sector where the unemployed person is subject to a barrage of self-monitoring and self-governing actions designed to empower and enable them to make choices through which a more flexible and entrepreneurial self is formed. I’m not arguing that the regime of deregulation, privatization, financialization and so on is not Neoliberal. Rather, I’m seeking to make what I think is an important distinction between the social democratic or even Marxist critiques of Neoliberalism—whose essential argument is that the state has abandoned its protection of the citizenry while the capitalist market has been given free reign—and the Foucauldian critical genealogy of Neoliberalism, which seeks to understand it as the governmentalisation of the state rather than its shrinking and disappearance. It is not so much that under Neoliberalism the market is what governs us as the social state has vacated the field, it is that in many of the significant spheres of life we are conceived of as human capital, and thereby we are conducted to be entrepreneurs of ourselves: to risk manage our lives, make investments with our time, to manage a portfolio of interests and activities, to seek to appreciate our assets. As individuals as human capital under Neoliberalism, so too the state. And what I’m arguing here is that the various arms of the state in Australia and in the Anglosphere, has not ceased to be Neoliberal in these senses that I’m outlining.
Climate science enters the contemporary public sphere under a number, but primarily, these conditions: under Neoliberalism seemingly in retreat as ideology but remaining as dominant governmentality. And it fundamentally challenges key components in the assemblage of Neoliberalism. Rather than conceiving of humans as individual atoms of capital, climate science sees humans as one species among many, but that species which now are affecting the global climate. For some scientists this aspect of human species history’s impact on earth’s geology and climate requires a new periodization in geological time from the Helocene to the Anthropocene.

We are at an historic opening. What needs to be settled on is how we govern the future. If Neoliberalism is the cultural and political logic of financial capitalism in a time of digital technology, then its techniques of future management have failed. As the Global Financial Crisis continues to ramify and we move from states bailing out private wealth to states bailing out other states, as is evident in the response to Greece’s sovereign debt crisis, there is an opening for new forms of future management, new forms for governing the future. Such a project presents a profound challenge to the liberal political project. This is due to the liberal project’s reliance on a tight coupling between negative freedom—defined as freedom from the state—and an epistemology in which a non-state sphere of human interaction—under Neoliberalism: the market, under earlier forms of liberalism: civil society, or society—produces its most liberating, productive and efficient results when no one entity seeks to understand and explain how it functions and how to improve it. This second component in this coupling is emblematized by Adam Smith’s invisible hand: a force akin to nature, one that is sublime to the extent that it can’t be understood and explained by a sovereign, and that if let be will promote these liberating, productive and efficient results.
Of course, the corollary of this liberal coupling is that individuals are autonomous, self-governing. Thus Hayek’s Neoliberalism, as some commentators observe, is a type of liberalism mixed with a set of conservative injunctions about the importance of slow change, and the traditions embodied in the family and other institutions. What distinguishes Hayek’s (Neo)liberalism from classical versions like Adam Smith’s is that, unlike Smith, Hayek believes our freedom is produced by a realm of artefacticity: a type of cultural activity in which institutions emerge with the weight of tradition and the flexibility that comes from being produced by free people. This realm lies between that of reason (which codifies laws) and that of nature. While Smith sees the invisible hand as natural, for Hayek human civilization is produced in this in-between realm, where traditions mix with radical freedom, mediated by that most free of structures: the market.
What, then, are the implications of this understanding of Neoliberalism’s coupling of negative freedom with an epistemology that disavows the sovereign’s knowledge of society for the politics of climate change? Under Liberal rationalities, markets will naturally produce solutions to climate change, rather than governments. Under Neoliberalism, markets will artefactually produce solutions. At this conjuncture, we are left at the mercy of the delay that suits industries of mining and fossil fuel-based energy manufacture. This delay is justified by a commitment to growth and the trickle-down of jobs and shareholder equity.
What is at stake is the future and that is problematic in a global system still governed by a future in which short-selling and complex derivatives circulate and structure our basic orientations toward time.
It is only when we can sort out the financial culture that has come to be so dominant a forcefield since 1973, that we can begin to articulate a politics of the future outside of that which stymies and panics the present. Coming to terms with and surmounting the autumnal post-1973 global financial system, are prerequisites for dealing with the internalisation of carbon in a system of exchange which seeks neither to defer or displace its waste.

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