The great humanistic emancipatory projects of the 20th century have run into the sand, leaving a non-humanistic one running riot: the Carbon Liberation Front. The rapid liberation of carbon molecules into the earth’s atmosphere is the dominant political programme of the 21st century, and neither state socialism nor capitalism provide any adequate response. The question, then, is how the Left might reinvent itself around something equally molecular and post-human, that might survive the 21st century. What becomes of the Left and of critical thought in the age of the anthropocene?
This is the challenge that McKenzie Wark sets himself and his readers in Molecular Red, the third book discussed in our anthropocene reading group. It is one of a series of recent books published by Verso which aims to reorient critical and Marxist thought towards an engagement with ecological catastrophe and climate change in particular. Like Jason Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life it does so by connecting traditional productionist concerns with class exploitation to constructivist theories of nature, so as to recognise that the Cartesian and positivist representation of nature as inert, infinitely exploitable objectivity, is a critical condition of how capital extracts value and wreaks devastation in the process. Just as optimistic Marxist accounts of ‘post-Fordism’ saw the rise of affective labor pushing class struggle beyond the boundaries of the workplace, spilling over into a global ‘multitude’, the pessimism generated by the ‘anthropocene’ now leads figures such as Wark to reconsider the traditional categories of Marxist analysis. The message of the anthropocene as a concept is that everything is now an effect of our labour, and the results are not good.
Wark sets about this reconstruction by excavating a series of heterodox thinkers and writers from the 20th century, each of whom has stood on the fringes of the ideological paradigm of their times, not quite outsiders but never at the centre of political or intellectual movements either. These are exponents of a style of thinking that he terms ‘low theory’, operating in the crevices of dominant political and technical regimes, looking at power and technology from below, to avoid reifying it or imposing some platonist theoretical conceit upon it. These are a mixture of science fiction writers (such as Kim Stanley Robinson), early Soviet protagonists (such as Alexander Bogdanov) and post-humanist science studies scholars (such as Donna Haraway). Wark’s enthusiasm for such figures is in keeping with his longer-standing interest in situationism, gaming and hacking, modes of political-intellectual engagement that cannot be cleanly bracketed as wholly philosophical or artistic or technical, but constantly play with the boundaries between these different crafts.
The most important figure in Molecular Red, it seems, is Bogdanov, a writer of utopian fiction prior to the Russian Revolution, then a Bolshevik organiser and proposer of various proletarian cultural institutions in the years after. Crucially, Bogdanov rejected the centralising tendencies of the Soviet Union, falling out with Lenin in the process, and proposing a program of ‘proletkult’ to support a decentralised socialist intellectual milieu. Bogdanov’s central theoretical contribution, as Wark presents things, is ‘tektology’, a radical democratisation of scientific method that would employ the full sensory capacity of society as the basis of knowledge. Tektology brings together questions of epistemology and methodology with those of political organisation, prioritising the challenge of assembly over that of representation. In that sense, Bogdanov offers a more radical departure from idealism than that offered by Marxist materialism, seeing as he seeks a proletarian epistemology and not only a proletarian politics. Later in the book, Wark shows how climate science is an implicitly tektological problem, given the social and political complexity in achieving knowledge of ‘climate’. In Bogdanov’s words, “the unity of experience is not ‘discovered’ but actively created by organisational means.” The Cartesian divide between cognition and labour is dissolved, and everything becomes about how humans and non-humans coordinate their sensory environmental impressions.
To this reader, this had more than a whiff of Actor Network Theory (ANT) about it. No doubt Bruno Latour is persona non grata in the reinvention of Leftist political theory (although Wark seems to share the Latourian sense that critique has ‘run out of steam’ [pdf]), yet the onto-political implications of tektology may not be so different from Latourian ANT. Perhaps Bogdanov is to Lenin what Gabriel Tarde is to Durkheim: the 20th century godfather that might have been, discovered only latterly once the dire consequences of modernist functionalism have become plain. Tektological emphasis on the use of metaphors across multiple domains of experience seems to echo Tarde’s focus on imitation as the principle basis of social and natural life. For Marxists dabbling in post-humanism, Haraway is a more obvious figure to turn to than Latour (and certainly than Heidegger), if only on a rhetorical level, but the respect for the non-human is a feature of various traditions of science studies.
In the work of Wark’s various critics, activists, utopians and novellists, he finds fragments of a new type of political orientation, that cannot be grasped as ‘philosophy’ or centralised as ‘science’ in any orthodox sense. But once again, beyond the reference to ‘comradely’ actions (now extended by cyborgs to the non-human world), it can be difficult to know precisely how this differs from a sort of pragmatic liberalism of, say, Richard Rorty or the pastiche-based postmodernism that someone like Frederic Jameson is seeking an exit from. Wark argues:
Perhaps we need a more plural conception of utopian possibility to match the plurality of sensations and the worldviews of the times. Rather than the endless competition between different visions of changing life, the challenge might be rather to organise between them. Here a utopian, or perhaps a meta-utopian mode of writing might point the way forward.
If it were still 1910, before the devastation of Soviet, capitalist and Cold War technoscience had begun, and before the Carbon Liberation Front had gained its most significant victories, then this mild and generous pluralism might indeed be an attractive future. Wark insists that this is also how climate science works today (drawing on the work of Haraway’s student, Paul Edwards, to make this argument), making climate science a necessarily post-Cartesian, tektological enterprise – one of the few areas of science that also requires its own “media theory” as he puts it. The question is whether we can afford to dispense with the warlike, domineering, rationalist capacities of modernity, at precisely the moment when they may be required to avert global catastrophe. What if the only way of dealing with climate change is, as Bill McKibben argues, to declare war on it?
Wark’s reply to this would no doubt be to point again to the geo-engineering crimes against non-human comrades, committed under the auspices of both socialist and capitalist ideology over the past century. How could the response to these crimes be to commit an even greater one, of the sort proposed by contemporary geo-engineering imaginaries backed by capital? This is an important warning. However, if we are as entangled in technoscience (including its military underpinings) as Haraway’s work reminds us, then why should we deny ourselves the right to attack the Carbon Liberation Front, fight it, destroy it, yank Rex Tillerson from office? Wark’s instinctive political engagement is a mischievous and playful one, in keeping with the hacker and situationist ethos. There are certain things that are vulnerable to this style of intervention (including, it would seem, Presidential elections), but there is no evidence as yet that the Carbon Liberation Front is one of them.
In fairness to Wark, his project is an avowedly humble one. Inspired by Bogdanov, he wants to decentralise theory, knowledge and power, to discover the view from below and from the hybrid. As much as anything, Molecular Red is a piece of fan-writing, an engaging and surprising tour through some of the literary and theoretical marginalia of the past century. It offers no real sense of how – or whether – the world can be saved, a task that Wark might view as one for more bourgeois, ‘molar’ theorists. “Climate science has no need for Marxist theory, but Marxist theory has need of climate science,” he writes. This suggests that Molecular Red is a book more concerned with the fate of the Left than it is with the fate of the planet. Meanwhile, the Carbon Liberation Front marches on.