At the Ends of the World: The War for the Whole has Begun

It is oft said that we are in a period of unparalleled disorder. But the world is remarkably resilient to external pressures, including radical changes to the Earth’s climate wrought by our species’ burning of the dead remnants of ancient sea creatures. The planet is simmering under this man-made frying pan, ready to be cast into the fire. We suppose that we will survive this, because we have survived so much up to this point. But we may also overestimate the human resilience to natural chaos. Even tiny changes in the climate have brought down empires and toppled kings in times gone by. Who is to say that our world, ruled predominantly be democracies, will survive the oncoming storm?

The set for Andromède, a play by Pierre Corneille about Perseus’ rescue of Andromeda from the sea-bound titan Cetus, as told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses.

The last century was mired by three world wars, the last of which was ‘cold’ and a shadow of its ‘hot’ predecessors. Arguably these wars begun with the Seven Years’ War of 1756-63, a war among the European empires and their colonial possessions. The Italian Wars of 1494-59 set the stage for this conflict around the Mediterranean, with the Atlantic and Indian Oceans’ incorporation into the hegemonic conflict by the eighteenth century, and the Pacific Ocean’s entry at last in the nineteenth century, culminating in this century’s dispute around Taiwan and surrounding islands in the South China Sea.

Even before the ‘discovery’ of the Americas, the idea of the world having distinctive ‘edges’ that, once passed, would lead to a ‘new world’ — the ‘undying lands’ as depicted in Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings — was central, albeit not nearly so cut and dry as is somewhat depicted. The idea that there are separate and discrete ‘worlds’ is a resolutely modern idea, where territorial boundaries are set in stone by a codified system of international laws and regulatory norms. But this frail patchwork quilt masks the brutal realities of great power politics, which remains the dominant governing force of human society. Civil scientist Thomas Hobbes once framed the only constraint on the chaotic sea monster of the ‘Behemoth’ as the orderly land beast of the ‘Leviathan’, personified in the sovereign state. Only the state can stand out against the sea, which gives the state shape and definition. This stands in contrast with the ancient ‘thelassocracy’, from Ancient Greece to precolonial Indonesia, where the state and the sea bled into one another, as the gods knew no definite limits, and nor did we, the children of gods.

But the ancients understood in many ways better than we do how limitations are important checks on the lust for power — or its demonic shadow, profit. Although there is no theoretical, or necessary, limitation on the expansion of power, there is a practical limitation — which philosopher Immanuel Kant might call a ‘postulate of practical reason’. These limiting conditions involve deferring to a higher power, like goodness or godliness, which coincide in the pre-Christian era. Today, we see the world as ruled by certain laws of nature, which maintain order as God oversees the cosmos He has created. But the world is much more messy than this, and the arbitrariness extends beyond the divine providence. We all have our own motives and desires, arising from our situations, governed by (as sociologist Max Weber put it) ‘many gods and demons’. But we cannot see ‘the One’ so clearly. Indeed, the One is hidden in the Many, and is imitated only in the Common sphere of mutual recognition that is the state, or ‘commonwealth’, sometimes referred to as the ‘Common-Weale’. But this Empire of Republics is now coming to an end. The last vestiges of a world clinging to moral certainty are ebbing away, as pragmatic doubt takes over our collective conscience. As Zygmunt Bauman characterises modernity, the world which begun with territorial certainty, ‘all that is solid melts into air’ (a quote from classical political economist Karl Marx). We now live in the liquid temporality of doubt. The spaces of warring states are now replaced with the times of trading classes, and the sovereign at last has given way to the roar of the sea.

In our world, to speak of ‘worlds’ is almost anachronistic. Each world bleeds into each other, and people prefer to speak, in such ugly parlance, of a ‘multi-verse’ to replace the ‘uni-verse’ of old. But the ancients never saw the world as a single, discreet entity — this is a modern invention, from the medieval dream of imperial unity under heaven, after the collapse of the Roman Empire. For the ancients, the one and the many are aspects of a whole, a predecessor of the idea of the common. Hence it is fashionable to speak of Plato’s Republic as a prototype of communal rule, or as a legacy of huntergatherer tribalism plastered onto a class-divided market society. But in between these extremes of ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ society is another dream, a dream of reality as distinct from our physical world, while recognising our imprisonment in the fantasy of our physicality. Neither materialist nor idealist, this realism speaks to the holism of ancient thought, as opposed to the particularism of our modern approach to things. We live in neither a universe nor a pluriverse, but rather an Omniverse. It is not merely a world that we live in, nor discrete worlds, but a world of worlds: the Whole.

After the destructive chaos of the twentieth century, one would think so many world wars would destroy our idea of the world, to which we hang onto by a thread. There are some, such as Bruno Latour, who call us to come ‘down to Earth’ from our cosmic fantasies. Latour calls us back to the ‘common’, to our shared planet which we are destroying with our industrial-capitalist world system, a literal instantiation of Tolkien’s Mordor, where all bow down before the modern ring of power: money.

But a fellowship of the ring is not enough. The hour is late, and the time of ending has already begun. Our survival as a civilisation rests not on mysterious hope but on resolute commitment to the task at hand: the resurrection of our natural capacities through a recalibration of our artificial environment we have built to protect ourselves, but which is now directly harming ourselves by undermining the natural foundations on which all art rests. The art of politics has become, as Clausewitz noted in the nineteenth century, the art of war — but without a Napoleonic incentive to defend our liberties against the threat of a new tyranny. It is possible Xi’s China functions today as Napoleon’s France once did: as a hegemonic challenger which must be defeated to uphold our current order. To recognise this threat, we must recognise the war that is being initiated is no universal crusade, and nor is it a particular bickering over the nuances of trade.

It is nothing less than a War for the Whole, a war that will rage across star systems and galactic societies, and a war which coincides with the fateful merger of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies. The nebulous worlds of today are shadows of the supernovae of tomorrow. To avoid being pulled back into the ‘black hole’ of death, we must embrace the ‘white hole’ of life — a portal from our fractious worlds at fragile peace to the underlying battle for this new middle Earth. We must wake up from our slumber, and do battle to the demonic beasts we have unwittingly created in our complacent sleep. If we wish to avoid further man-made violence, we must shore up the bastions of peace, and contain all threats to the stabilising hegemony of our decaying civilisation, protected only by the mutually assured destruction of great powers’ shared nuclear weapons and the productive consumption of the American state. The two threats we face are:

1. Capital, which divides the American state along class lines, and

2. China, which threatens to bring down the system of world trade into a state of war, of all against all.

The third threat results from the fossil fuel burning that the first two generate:

3. Climate change, which threatens to intensify struggle among states and classes, and complete the transition from peaceful trade to violent war.

Once these three traps have fully sprung, the worlds of old will be surpassed by the broken whole into which we now find ourselves thrown, defenceless and hopeless against the tides of time, and the shards of space. The deluge is upon us — and the War for the Whole has begun. But the old world is not dead yet. We must do everything we can to protect it against what is to come — since shoring up the old world’s defences will protect it from the new worlds of chaos to come. If we fail, we must simply remember, in all our struggling, where we are heading: the end of all things human, and the beginning of something new. We must be cautious; and, therefore, ambitious. If we fail to secure peace, we can strive to win the war. Then the terror of Terra can end, and the oneness of the Whole can begin. First, there is a war to fight, to win, and — at the earliest possible opportunity — end. I would say we can prevent it — but I fear it has already begun. I hope I am wrong. Let us be ready, just in case I am not.

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