Everyone a Climate Loser
Pandemics and climate disasters don't threaten just one kind of economy: Two new books, by Adam Tooze and Bruno Maçães, explain the way they put all of human existence into question.
by Bruno Maçães (Hurst Publishers, 240 pp., $31.20)
by Adam Tooze (Viking, 368 pp., $21.99)
As various societies have faced ruination, their tendency has been to conflate their catastrophe with the ending of the world. More often than not, what’s actually ending is a way of life rather than the world itself: From the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 C.E. to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, those involved did experience a cataclysmic ending. But each such ending historically has brought forth new societies, new nations, and even new ways of understanding human organization.
Two books published this September about two first-order crises of our time, Covid-19 and climate change, explore how these issues are fueling political second-order transformations. The first book is Geopolitics for the End Time: From the Pandemic to the Climate Crisis by Hudson Institute fellow and former Portuguese politician Bruno Maçães, who has published on global politics in History has Begun: The Birth of a New America (2020) and Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order (2018). The second book is $hutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy by Adam Tooze, a Columbia University history professor and frequent contributor to the New Statesman, London Review of Books, and The Guardian.
The two major challenges that humanity faces at present—Covid-19 and the potential for future globe-spanning pandemics, and the possibility of a climate disaster generated by reliance on outdated forms of energy—are different from prior catastrophes. They are different because they do not just threaten particular civilizational modes. Rather, modern pandemics and climate change put human existence into question. The existential crisis this amounts to is driving, in its turn, paradigm shifts across divergent and established human systems. I would argue that, while the historical endings cited above were localized and particular, climate change and deadly pathogens present—at least in terms of an inability to isolate oneself from them—a universal challenge for human society. We all rely on the biosphere and a stable climate for survival.
Both books were written during the event they describe: Covid-19. This causes elements of Geopolitics for the End Time and $hutdown to feel sketchy and contingent on fast-moving data, but this is an expected risk in writing “the first draft of history.” As Tooze states: “If we are not beyond the end of history, that is what writing history involves. Not definitive pronunciation, but writing to be overwritten.” Tooze and Maçães ultimately both try to recognize the extreme challenges before us and to account for the political and economic changes driven by this knowledge. As Maçães argues: “The end time is a time of revelation.”
Tooze and Maçães are each concerned with the same major changes, specifically those within the realm of geopolitics and political economy. As an economic historian, Tooze is naturally more concerned with central banks, inflation, bond markets and systematic risk, while Maçães emphasizes conceptual shifts and broader changes in international relations. Both authors rely on their expertise to discuss forces such as China’s expansion, massive debt issuance, and the globalization of vulnerable supply chains. These forces can be treated as second-order transformations, partly driven by reactions to Covid-19 and climate change, but which can also, reciprocally, be treated as primary causes that have pushed us into a perilous situation. Changes that seemed to have been dormant within the 21st century now have crystallized, due to the onset of the pandemic.
However, Tooze and Maçães differ in their theories about where the shock of the pandemic originated. Early on in his book, Maçães criticizes Tooze for arguing that “what we are living through is the first economic crisis of the Anthropocene.” Maçães asks: “Is this actually the case? Is the threat a direct result of human activity?” Instead, Geopolitics for the End Time understands Covid-19 as a force from outside the human system—a sign of our unfinished quest to control nature. $hutdown, in contrast, interprets the crisis of the last two years as one of human error caused by intrusion into wild spaces, by the underdevelopment of healthcare capacity, and by a consequent voluntary withdrawal by civil society into “shutdown.” Yet both authors coalesce in thinking that our systems have been woefully underprepared for shocks, be they internal or external.
For his part, Maçães argues that our current systems, from the emerging Chinese state established in 1949 to the neoliberal theories of the West inaugurated in the 1970s, have remained unchallenged, until now, by cataclysmic events. Covid-19 has provided the necessary test of these systems:
The pandemic was a test for every country and every political system because it placed them before something that could not be interpreted or subsumed under their own governing principles. It was a brute fact, still free of interpretation. And it called for action, which is not only the measure of human beings but the measure of their collective life as well. Once action becomes urgent and unavoidable, every political virtue or flaw comes to the surface.
Tooze also points to the Covid-19 crisis as a turning point that provoked action, outside the normal boundaries of economic common sense, to prevent a global recession. This turn launched a profound investigation into prevailing assumptions about the global order and its hierarchies:
How could countries that once boasted of global hegemony and that were undisputed leaders in matters of public health fail so badly to manage the disease? It must reflect a deeper malaise. Perhaps it was their common enthusiasm for neoliberalism? Or the culmination of a process of decline stretching over many decades? Or the insularity of their political cultures?
The two aspects of the “deep malaise” that Tooze identifies—an insularity of political culture and an enthusiasm for neoliberalism—run throughout both Geopolitics for the End Time and $hutdown. Covid-19 has forced us to think about the status of America and China as deeply intertwined civilizational rivals, these books argue, and how best to plan our economic systems to withstand future shocks from both pathogens and the environment.
Maçães, in one of the most interesting chapters of his book, proposes that we are moving toward a conception of the “civilization state,” as a successor to other failed attempts to forge a universalistic system under Western liberalism, that aspired to not “be a civilization at all, but something closer to an operating system.” While travelling in China, Maçães is constantly reminded by party officials that “China is a civilization, not a nation-state.” The “civilization state,” pioneered in India and China under Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping respectively, he argues, is a postcolonial riposte from the rising powers of Asia to their former colonial masters, that seeks to redefine political truth. “By accusing Western political ideas of being a sham, of masking their origin under the veneer of supposedly neutral principles, the defenders of the civilizational state are saying that the search for universality is over and that all of us must accept that we speak only for ourselves and our societies.”
What Maçães is describing is not “multiculturalism” or the notion of value pluralism as proposed by British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, whereby truth is contingent on and modulated by specific cultural circumstances or political particulars but still independently existent. The civilization state is not, as Maçães says, anything like the liberal internationalism whose “principles were meant to be simple and empty, no more than an abstract framework within which different cultural possibilities could be explored.” Rather, it is something much more like the postmodernist nationalism of figures in Russia such as Aleksandr Dugin, who claim access “to a special Russian truth” entirely determined by strategic political aims. However, the civilization state is very much a concept geared toward external competition with the West, despite its proponents' claiming an internal organic societal harmony—political, ethnic, religious or civil—that is ancient and disconnected from modern geopolitics. We need only witness the attempted Sinicization of non-Han people in China or political attacks against Muslims, Adivasis, Dalits, and anti-nationals in India to see that the construction of unitary civilization states will always be at the expense of outsiders.
America is not exempt from this trajectory: It too is a civilization state, despite its pretensions to a form of universalism. Tooze points out that those fighting for ownership of how the United States presents on the world stage are locked in an equally-weighted battle of cultural and political attrition that has prevented America from taking decisive action on Covid and climate change. Essentially, Tooze argues, liberals and conservatives are waging an endless navel-gazing culture war on the social trends of the 1960s, while external to it the world order is changing. “The irreconcilable clashes in American politics reflected a polarization between those who affirmed the many transformations America has undergone since the tumultuous 1960s.” For Tooze, the culture war has resulted in an abandonment of the critical questions of societal capacity and welfare spending during the pandemic: “The granting of food stamps was capricious, and the lines at food banks were interminable. As winter approached and the political system remained in gridlock, the land of the free and the home of the brave was swept by an epidemic of shoplifting for food.” It is these questions, in Tooze’s estimation, about how to feed a populace during an emergency, which ultimately decides the prestige and levels of stability a government can lay claim to.
Yet the civilization states of America and China cannot permanently reside in their silos—unlike during the Cold War between the United States and the USSR, both the United States and China have deeply intertwined economies with national companies operating in each other’s territories. Tooze points out that, in the wake of Covid-19, “America’s sudden pivot to Cold War mode was at odds with how globalized businesses had been operating in China for three decades. It forced a deeply disconcerting question: Which was the greater threat to the status quo: China or the United States?” Indeed, as the global order pivots toward a potential new Cold War and potentially restructures the economy along protectionist lines, it might be global business that becomes the complicating factor. China is pursuing a policy of dual circulation to protect its domestic markets; America is attempting to onshore vulnerable and strategic supply chains. Meanwhile, global corporations are still operating under the assumptions of an older era of open Chinese-American relations defined under Nixon, Carter, and Deng Xiaoping.
The changes afoot, driven by climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic, will be painful for those who have benefitted from the old order. As Maçães argues: “If the climate crisis will inaugurate a new economic and technological model, the last thing we should expect is that the transition will be a peaceful one. What history teaches us is that moments of transition are understood by state actors as a threat and an opportunity, rare moments when new orders may be created and new states may ascend to commanding heights.”
Both $hutdown and Geopolitics for the End Time are enlightening books that forward the argument that there is no going back to the world as it was pre-pandemic. Leaders must embrace and utilize radical change for the common good of their communities. In light of this reality, promises that “nothing [will] fundamentally change'' increasingly seem to be examples of “Nero fiddling as Rome burns.”
Samuel McIlhagga is a journalist based in the United Kingdom. He writes on political thought and theory, UK politics, and foreign affairs.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe