THE TWO FORMS OF TECHNOLOGICAL ESCAPISM from the Anthropocene described above—toward either the cyborgian future of Man 2.0 or the interplanetary future of World 2.0—have a more inward-looking counterpart, one that I call here, with a nod to science-fiction writer Stanisław Lem, “encystment.” Lem uses this term in his philosophical treatise Summa Technologiae to describe the behavior of a civilization that is experiencing an information crisis and is thus threatened with the loss of control over its own homeostasis, a result of receiving too much feedback from what Lem calls “Nature.” In response, such a civilization may become “encysted”: it will construct “‘a world within a world,’ an autonomous reality that is not directly connected with the material reality of Nature.” Enveloping itself with a “cybernetic–sociotechnical shell,” the encysted civilization becomes a world to itself, deferring, at least temporarily, the spectrum of information explosion, entropy, and its eventual demise.
The mechanism of encystment is regularly mobilized by various sections of the human population in an attempt to ward off all kinds of threats, including the existential threat to our very existence as a species and to the continued survival of our terrestrial abode. The “cybernetic-sociotechnical shell,” emerging today in the form of walls, barriers, bans, and exits, is fueled precisely by discourses of excess, mainly the excess of human bodies and their organic and nonorganic products. Thus, the progressive politics of degrowth on the planetary scale in the face of the Anthropocene finds, perhaps too easily, its ugly twin in the localized discourses of information and matter overload: cyberterrorism, multiculturalism, immigration flood, the refugee crisis. The fuel for the maintenance of such multiple encysted worlds is provided today by the logic of the self-same: the image of the foundational anthropos of the Anthropocene, whose manhood is now threatened by the inpour of those who are not like him. Nicholas Mirzoeff has gone so far as to argue that the Anthropocene is a manifestation of white supremacist tendencies because the threat it heralds pertains to the withering of the imperialist white male as the supposedly timeless subject of geohistory. The rise of the global “alt-right” movement—which the UK’s Observer has called “a nouvelle vague of racism”—is an example of the recent resurgence of those tendencies. In an interview with the Observer’s Sanjiv Bhattacharya, members of the alt-right American Freedom Party have declared a fight against “the systematic browbeating of the white male” and the “looming extinction of the white race.”
When Mirzoeff makes a link between the Anthropocene and the colonization of America, thus claiming that the new geological epoch under discussion began “with a massive colonial genocide,” and then goes on to suggest that “the political failure to enact change in relation to the crisis of the Earth system” may have been motivated “precisely by systemic racism,” he sees the Anthropocene as a fact and as evidence of both colonialism and racism. But what if the situation were even more scandalous than that? What if, without denying the constitutive relationship between violence and the emergence of the modern world that has been posited by many scholars (not least among them Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida), we go one step further and actually suggest that the very emergence of the Anthropocene as a proposition and discourse has acted as fodder for white supremacist tendencies by way of containing and perhaps temporarily warding off anxieties about the extinction of the White Man? It is therefore interesting that, when commenting on the views of his alt-right interlocutors, Bhattacharya would conclude: “Their point is that white people are melting away like the icecaps, and they have a primal drive to stop it.” The abovementioned “encystment” is the solution the alt-right offers; in response to the threat of too much racial mixing, they advocate “Balkanisation: separate territories for separate tribes.” This thinking is underpinned by Man’s somewhat confusing relationship to “Nature,” which has to be explicitly overcome as the state of bestiality and wildness above which (the White) Man can rise yet remain implied as a justification for this hierarchy between races and “tribes.”
As discussed earlier, the idea that the separation of Man from Nature signifies teleological maturation underpins the tragic vision of the world. This vision is ultimately redeemed in Christianity with the promise of salvation and eternal life. Yet apocalypticism has some serious consequences for the emergence of ethico-political frameworks on our planet. Keller argues that “endist individualism reinforces the secular myopias of U.S. [and not just U.S.—JZ] culture today—infantile cravings for gratification and rescue.” She goes on to suggest that the successful politicization of right-wing Christians “allows the right to secretly harness the revolutionary horsepower of apocalypse,” redirecting the force of the liberation encoded in the apocalyptic narrative, manifesting itself in revolutionary movements all over the world, into a backlash against those movements. The apocalyptic discourse ultimately serves to maintain the status quo of the self-same White (Christian) Man and to protect him against what seems alien and hostile: women, transsexuals, refugees, the homeless. As Colebrook points out:
The supposedly universal “human” was always white, Western, modern, able-bodied and heterosexual man; the “subject” who is nothing other than a capacity for self-differentiation and self-constitution is the self of market capitalism. To return to “anthropos,” now, after all these years of difference seems to erase all the work in postcolonialism that had declared enlightenment “man,” to be a fiction that allowed all the world to be “white like me,” and all the work in feminism that exposed the man and subject of reason as he who cannibalizes all others and remakes them in his image. The Anthropocene seems to override vast amounts of critical work in queer theory, trans-animalities, post-humanism and disability theory that had destroyed the false essentialism of the human.
Anthropocene apocalypticism thus reveals itself to be nothing more than an exercise in narcissism: a denial of the “feeling of being the animal you are, born of other animals, made of mirroring them.” The denial of our animality takes place at the expense of projecting this animality onto others: the parasites of the accepted social and economic order, who become enclosed in detention centers and refugee camps such as the Calais “Jungle” camp in France, liquidated in October 2016. This mode of thinking and acting promotes species chauvinism with the elevation of Man over his animal companions and nonhuman constituents. It also leads to a return to nationalist or regionalist governance via encystment: a conservative politics of maintenance and preservation.
Importantly—and worryingly—the successful politicization of right-wing Christians in the light of the apocalyptic narratives identified by Keller has its wider aftermath in the resurgence of right-wing populism across the world as a (perhaps unwitting) response to the impending planetary cataclysm. Francisco Panizza offers a symptomatic reading of populism “as an anti-status quo discourse that simplifies the political space by symbolically dividing society between ‘the people’ (as the ‘underdogs’) and its ‘other.’” The Anthropocene imagery provides a justification for the finalist pronouncements of many of the “postpolitical” politicians and their followers, with the populus elevated to the multiplicity of Man, seemingly threatened yet still standing tall. Arguably, we have been experiencing the rise of populism in the world, or even its arrival in recurring waves, for a while now. Panizza’s edited collection Populism and the Mirror of Democracy came out in 2005 and already analyzed the growth of the right-wing populist FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria) under Jörg Haider post-1986, the rise of the New Right in English Canada since 1987, the emergence of populist elements in the “new politics” of Carlos Menem in Argentina post-1989, the turn to populism in postapartheid South Africa in the 1990s, the emergence of skinhead conservatism out of Thatcherism in the UK between 1997 and 2001, and the success of the Pim Fortuyn electoral list in the Netherlands in 2002 following the consolidation of anti-immigration sentiments in the light of Fortuyn’s political activities and subsequent murder. Yet 2016, the year that gave impetus to my book, saw an intensification of populist tendencies, evident in multiple world events from the Donald Trump phenomenon to Brexit. Of course, populist voices emerge in different parts of the world and do not exclusively appear on the (Christian) right, as evidenced in the deadly yet popular war on drugs and the racist, inflammatory anti–United States rhetoric of Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines. They can also be heard in the “enlightened populism” of Emmanuel Macron or in the resurgence of left-wing populism as a political response to the changing affective composition of the electorate worldwide. I am, however, particularly interested in the mobilization of populism as a weapon against perceived threats to the identity of the white Christian man, a figure embraced by many populist leaders as the quintessential mark of European civilization.
The political rhetoric mixing select tenets of the Christian faith and biblical fundamentalism has indeed played a role in the emergence of right-wing parties and positions in various parts of the globe in the early twenty-first century. Take, for example, Poland under the rule of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), with its consolidation of governmental power over various public institutions as well as citizens’ private bodies and lives in 2016 following its electoral success the year before. Such rhetoric also arguably fueled the popularity of Donald Trump as presidential candidate that culminated in his election as president in November 2016—although Trump himself is no poster boy for religion. Yet religion is not a prerequisite for the emergence of conservative and conservationist populist sentiment: secular passion can easily take its place. At the risk of painting in rather thick brushstrokes, we can think here about diverse events such as the rejection of the European Union’s migrant plan in the name of national sovereignty by Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, Alternative für Deutschland’s combat against the supposed threat of Islamification, post-Heider FPÖ’s defense of “freedom and democracy” against the European Union with all its supposed diktats, or the mobilization of anti-European sentiment cultivated over the years via the power nexus of mainstream media and politics in the UK that resulted in the 2016 referendum victory for Brexit supporters. Setting itself against the elitism and corruption of traditional politics, this recent form of populism still very much borrows from the Christian myth of redemption: it “offers a promise of emancipation after a journey of sacrifice.”
No matter whether the fuel for these political movements is religious or secular, its recent nemesis also tends to be a religious figure: the Muslim man. In populist political rhetoric, he is not always a terrorist but he is always potentially dangerous: he can become “radicalized,” oppress his wife, assault “our” women, or end up a rapist. This explains the (il)logic behind Anders Behring Breivik’s acts of mass murder in August 2012, first in Oslo and then on the summer-camp island of Utøya, of over seventy of his Norwegian compatriots whom he associated with “cultural Marxism.” Not particularly religious himself, Breivik had a strong sense that European identity was formatively entangled with Christianity and that its key enemy was Islam. In his book Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, Italian philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi rather chillingly observes that “the fundamental political agenda of Mr Breivik is not so far removed from the agenda of conservative political movements the world over.” What we are witnessing in the pronouncements of their supporters, now increasingly visible thanks to the Internet and social media, is a defense of a particular version of Eurocentric identity which seems threatened with both Islamification and demasculinization. This is illustrated in the misogynist slide from “Muslim” to “woman” in Breivik’s own rant: “Femininity is penetrating everywhere, and the feminization of European culture is nearly completed. Europe is a woman who would prefer to be raped than to risk serious injuries while resisting.”
Writing in the New York Review of Books, Jan-Werner Müller analyzes this “fundamental political conflict that can be found in many Western democracies today” precisely in terms of the fear of contamination and gender-otherness:
This conflict is not meaningfully described as one of “ordinary people versus the establishment.” In Austria, both the Freedom Party and the Green Party have been “established” since the mid-1980s; in Britain, Boris Johnson, one of the main faces of the Brexit campaign, is about as establishment as one can get in the UK; and Donald Trump is hardly the authentic representative of Main Street. Rather, on one side of the new conflict are those who advocate more openness: toward minorities at home and toward engagement with the world on the outside. On the other side we find the Le Pens, Farages, and Trumps: close the nation-state off by shutting borders and thereby, or so they promise, take back control; but also, preserve the traditional hierarchies that have come under threat on the inside. “Make America Great Again” means above all: “Make sure white males rule again.”
The abovementioned developments work on the basis of issuing what Ernesto Laclau has called “the promise of fullness”: an impossible fantasy that provides a shelter against oncoming threats both real and imaginary. The populist promise today involves the prospect of a land of plenty from a time long gone. Yet the desired object must remain unnamed as the very survival of not just of the populist leader but also the postpolitical democratic consensus that allows for the emergence of populism depends on the survival and prosperity of the current political and economic regime. Acknowledging that “the people” yearn for a world before globalization and before neoliberal capitalism would involve a confrontation with the fact that this seemingly naturalized state of events is subject to change and that it may need to change. This is why few politicians who want to be seen as “electable” are promising, let alone successfully delivering, the reduction of the income gap, more accessible housing policies, or better access to healthcare. Any of these would require a serious rethinking of the neoliberal economic model that the globalized world now depends on, and that is both a product of and a motor for the Anthropocene. (As explained before, while attempts to date the Anthropocene go back variously to the early days of agriculture, the colonization of the New World, or the steam age, many thinkers point to the post-1945 intensification of manufacturing, extractivism, urbanization, and global transport and trade as its most significant markers.) It is therefore far easier for the so-called “democratic center” to dismiss those harboring populist sympathies as xenophobes while adopting splinters of their demands: anti-EU sentiment, support for “European values,” immigration control. This development ends up leaving the political and economic status quo intact. Chantal Mouffe claims: “When democratic politics has lost its capacity to shape the discussion about how we should organise our common life, and when it is limited to securing the necessary conditions for the smooth working of the market, the conditions are ripe for talented demagogues to articulate popular frustration.” A response to this state of events leads to what Mouffe identifies as “moral condemnation and the establishment of a cordon sanitaire” around the populists, in place of engaging them in political struggle. This is because there is no room for political struggle anymore in the era of economic consensus: there is only room for frustration, fury, persecution mania, and, more worryingly, depression and suicide.