A steampunk Byzantium with nukes

    John Gray, philosopher and fellow son of the north-east of England, is probably best known for Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. I confess to not yet having read it, despite (or perhaps because of) it being published in the same year I graduated from a degree in Philosophy 21 years ago.

    This article by Nathan Gardels, editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine, is a review of Gray’s latest book, entitled The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism. Gray is a philosophical pessimist who argues against free markets and neoliberalism. In the book, which is another I’m yet to read, he argues for a return to pluralism, citing Thomas Hobbes' idea that there is no ultimate aim or highest good.

    Instead of one version of the good life, Gray suggests that liberalism must acknowledge that this is a contested notion. This has far-reaching implications, not least for current rhetoric around challenging the idea of universal human rights. I’ll have to get his book, it sounds like a challenging but important read.

    The world Gray sees out there today is not a pretty one. He casts Russia as morphing into “a steampunk Byzantium with nukes.” Under Xi Jinping, China has become a “high-tech panopticon” that keeps the inmates under constant surveillance lest they fail to live up to the proscribed Confucian virtues of order and are tempted to step outside the “rule by law” imposed by the Communist Party.

    Gray is especially withering in his critique of the sanctimonious posture of the U.S.-led West that still, to cite Reinhold Niebuhr, sees itself “as the tutor of mankind on its pilgrimage to perfection.” Indeed, the West these days seems to be turning Hobbes’ vision of a limited sovereign state necessary to protect the individual from the chaos and anarchy of nature on its head.

    Paradoxically, Hobbes’ sovereign authority has transmuted, in America in particular, into an extreme regime of rights-based governance, which Gray calls “hyper-liberalism,” that has awakened the assaultive politics of identity. “The goal of hyper-liberalism,” writes Gray, “is to enable human beings to define their own identities. From one point of view this is the logical endpoint of individualism: each human being is sovereign in deciding who or what they want to be.” In short, a reversion toward the uncontained subjectivism of a de-socialized and unmediated state of nature that pits all against all.

    Source: What Comes After Liberalism | NOEMA

    Climate havens

    I grew up in an ex-mining town, surrounded by ex-mining villages. At one point in my teenage years, I can distinctly remember wondering why people continued to live in such places once the reason for its existence had gone?

    Now I’m an adult, of course I realise the many and varied economic, social, and emotional reasons. But still, the question remains: why do people live in places that don’t support a flourishing life?

    One of the reasons that politicians are turning up the anti-immigration at the moment is because they’re well-aware of the stress that our planet is under. As this article points out, even if we reach net zero by 2050, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere means that some places are going to be uninhabitable.

    That’s going to lead not only to international migration, but internal migration. We need to be preparing for that, not just logistically, but in terms of winning hearts and minds.

    In 2022, climate change and climate-related disasters led nearly 33 million people to flee their homes and accounted for over half of all new numbers of people displaced within their countries, according to data from the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. This amount will surely increase over the next few decades.

    Outside the United States and Canada, the World Bank predicts that climate change will compel as many as 216 million people to move elsewhere in their countries by 2050; other reports suggest that more than one billion people will become refugees because of the impacts of a warming planet on developing countries, which may exacerbate or even precipitate civil wars and interstate armed conflict.

    […]

    The extraordinary pressure that continued international and domestic climate migration will impose upon state resources and social goods like schools, hospitals and housing is difficult to fathom. Over the past year, city and state governments in the U.S. have feuded over the distribution of migrants stemming from the Southern border, with New York Mayor Eric Adams declaring that the current migration wave will “destroy” the city.

    […]

    The stark fact is that the amount of carbon dioxide already amassed in the atmosphere all but assures that certain zones will become uninhabitable by the end of the century, regardless of whether global greenhouse gas emissions reach net zero by 2050. If factories cannot operate at full capacity due to life-threatening climate conditions, periodic grid failures and difficult-to-replace labor shortages over the next two decades — and these challenges reverberate throughout their surrounding economies — the output of the renewables sector will falter and stall projects to decarbonize businesses, government agencies and households.

    Source: The U.S. Government Should Push People To Move To Climate Havens | Noema

    How to hold a 'preferendum'

    I like this idea a lot. The only caveat is that we could potentially be ruled by “the will of the people” in a way that degenerates into the worst kind of populism.

    However, I get the feeling that if this happens often enough, in practice it would be at worst benign, and at best a net benefit to democracy.

    The preferendum is a highly promising instrument for public decision-making, especially when it is preceded by a well-designed, deliberative group of citizens representative of the public at large and succeeded by clear government action. It can be integrated within existing structures of public participation and might help bridge the gap between deliberative and representative processes.
    An explanation of how it would work:
    At the polling station during the next general election, you get not one but two ballot papers. The first is your usual list of candidates and their political parties. The second is something new — a document with 30 different proposals that you are invited to analyze, one after the other.

    Underneath each idea it says “strongly disagree,” “disagree,” “agree,” “strongly agree,” etc. It feels like one of those online questionnaires you’ve seen many times before.

    At the bottom of the form, you are invited to highlight the five proposals you care about most. Every citizen in your country on voting day would be looking at the same list and doing what you are doing in the voting booth: rating and ranking proposals. The goal is to establish a list of shared priorities.

    The process looks like a referendum, a process you might’ve participated in before. But where a referendum asks you for a straight yes or no answer to a certain question, this new process — this preferendum — has a much richer interface for indicating your policy preferences. You get to translate your individual preferences into the collective priorities of your community.

    Source: Democracy’s Missing Link | NOEMA

    Challenging capitalism through co-ops and community

    The glossy Instagram lifestyle is actually led by a fraction of a fraction of 1% of the world’s population. Instead of us all elbowing each other out of the way in pursuit of that, this article points to a better solution: co-operation.

    There are two types of economics active in the world right now — which basically means two radically divergent varieties of economic life. The first is economics as most economists and writers see it and talk about it. The second is economics as most people live it.

    Call the first “the top-up.” It’s the economics of competition and asymmetrical knowledge and shareholder value and creative destruction. It’s the dominant system. We know all about the top-up. Tales of the doings of the top-up economy are mainlined into our brains from business articles, financial analysis, stories about our planet’s richest people or corporations or nations. Bezos. Buffett. Gates. Musk. Zuckerberg. The Forbes 400. The Fortune 500. The Nasdaq. The Nikkei. On and on.

    Call the second “the bottom-down.” We don’t hear as much about it because it’s a lot less sexy and a lot more sticky. It involves survival mechanisms and community solidarity and cash-in-hand calculations.

    But it’s the economic system of the global majority, and this makes it the more important of the two.

    […]

    The top-up economic sphere functions like a gated community in which people who have money can pretend that everything they do and have in life is based on merit, and that the communal and cooperative boosts from which they profit are nothing but natural outgrowths of that merit.

    […]

    Change always comes from below — and it is in the bottom-down relationships where growth and egalitarianism can flourish. Every volunteer fire department is a community platform. Every mutually managed water system demonstrates that neighbors can build things when they need each other. Every community-based childcare network or parent-teacher association is a nascent collective. Every civic association, neighborhood or church council, social action network or food pantry gives people a broader perspective. Every collectively run savings and credit association demonstrates that communal trust can give people a leg up.

    Source: Co-ops And Community Challenge Capitalism | Noema