Planetary Futures or Catastrophic Present?
By Joël Laforest
1. We Already Inhabit the Catastrophe: Hell is here and now
Extrapolating the current array of social forces into a climate-changed future leads to grim conclusions. The most noticeable impacts of anthropogenic climate change will result in coastal flooding of populated areas resulting in large dislocations and migrations, disruption of staple food crops likely contributing to famine, and a range of disruptive climactic phenomena, alongside a likely increase in migration, border trouble, and armed conflict. The consequences of these events and their interaction with a range of ecological, social and political crises do not lead to particularly optimistic outlooks for the near future.
Is any of this new? The planetary scale of the ecological crises and its associated social repercussions are certainly unprecedented – but the pairing of ecologies of disease, famine and war to processes of dislocation, expropriation and proletarianization should seem very familiar. The expropriation and starvation of Indians, Chinese and Brazillians (among others) features prominently in Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World, where
millions died, not outside the "modern world system," but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures. They died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism; indeed, many were murdered, as we shall see, by the theological application of the sacred principles of Smith, Bentham and Mill.1
Of note in Davis’ account is the fact that grain supplies in India were in fact able to provide relief to the local Indian famines of the Victorian age – the issue was not one of resource scarcity (though crop failure contributed). As markets allocate resources based on ability to pay and not social need, when the ‘demand’ side of the supply-demand curve was not present (demand, of course, meaning the pairing of social need with adequate ability to pay), death by hunger resulted, as Karl Polanyi describes:
Failure of crops was, of course, part of the picture, but despatch of grain by rail made it possible to send relief to the threatened areas; the trouble was that the people were unable to buy the corn at rocketing prices, which on a free but incompletely organized market were bound to be the reaction to a shortage.2
Closer to home, similar tales of market-integration, monopoly capitalism, disease, ecological destruction, starvation and genocide should be familiar, too. James Daschuk, in Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life describes the ecologies of disease that led of European contact, with virgin soil epidemics causing mortality rates as high as 90-95 percent.3 The growing reach of the fur trade increasingly integrated indigenous communities into market relations, with settlement culminating in the systematic destruction of the ecology necessary for aboriginal life in the prairies through the extinction of bison herds. The withholding of food supplies and the use of starvation as a tool for political control by the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs left the surviving aboriginal communities increasingly vulnerable to tuberculosis.4
These are but a few examples: an exhaustive inventory of the preventable death, misery and violence that has accompanied capitalist expansion over the last few hundred years is not necessary here. Whatever results from the near-future of ecological crises, it must be understood within this context: the ongoing violent processes of capital accumulation. Lifting the crisis-nexus of climate change out of the history of capital-driven social and ecological crises – making it unique or exceptional – risks ignoring how normalized this violence has already become. Eddie Yuen argues precisely this point in The Politics of Failure Have Failed, which argues that the prospect of tens of millions of climate refugees should seem remarkably familiar within a context of refugees already displaced due to neoliberalism, neocolonialism and war around the world. The issue is not that refugees are a new phenomenon: “a triage of humanity has been taking place for five hundred years, and if the twenty-first century sees an increase in preventable death and misery, this will be more evidence of consistency than novel catastrophe.”5
Just as the sometimes-slow, sometimes-fast violence of capitalism makes up the normal background of everyday life, we should expect future crises to similarly occupy the normal everyday of the future. No singular or epochal event will signal a sudden temporal or planetary break marking the new, terrible future from the tolerable past. Walter Benjamin is useful here:
The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things are “status quo” is the catastrophe. It is not an ever-present possibility but what in each case is given. Thus Strindberg: hell is not something that awaits us, but this life here and now.6
This emphasis on the already-ongoing and normalized catastrophic is necessary because it reorients attention to the present, not to future expectation. It is the here and now that demands attention, not a potential future. Even with whatever indications we have about the shape of the future, one only has agency in the present.
2. Attention in the Eternal Present
The temporal orientation towards expectation (to the detriment of the present) is a social and ideological consequence of capital accumulation. As capital valorization is a constant process, it is always flowing from M to C to M’, which leads to a particular temporal orientation: the present task is always performed in anticipation of the future. On an economic and social scale, the resources and abilities of the present are mobilized in expectation of future returns. This future, however, never arrives. No full accounting ever occurs, and accounts are never permanently settled. Instead, surpluses are reinvested, and one always looks forward to the next transformation of value, the next trade, the next quarter. The chain of M-C-M’ continues.
This phenomenon of always investing, intensifying and mobilizing the present for a future which never arrives but merely cycles into the next chain-link of M-C-M’ has some peculiar effects. Philip Goodchild, in his analysis Capitalism and Religion, argues that
expectations may have little contact with reality: they focus attention on an imaginary future good...The economy is driven by fantasy. [...] In so far as attention is diverted away from immediate needs to unrealizable fantasies, then there is an extraction of surplus value from attention. The extraction of surplus value is the diverting of attention from the mode of the householder to the mode of the speculator. It is the abandonment of reality for fantasy.7
This temporal feature of capitalism has been documented, for example, by E. P. Thompson’s work on the emergence of time-discipline associated with clock-time as opposed to earlier irregular ‘natural’ notions of work-rhythms.9 As socially necessary labour time becomes an organizing principle for labour under capitalism, so too does the competitive pressure to increase production within as short a time as possible. Rather than time be demarcated or punctuated by events – night and day, or the movement of tides – time is instead the constant steady ticking of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years. Moishe Postone describes the distinction between these two temporal modes as concrete (event) time, as opposed to abstract (empty) time. Concrete time is the function of an occasion: it is delineated and informed by the event itself. The time it takes to bake bread is concrete: it is outlined by the event of baking bread. The time it takes the time to come in is concrete: it is delineated by the end of low tide and the reaching of high tide.
Abstract time, however, is the capitalist measurement of time, where time becomes empty of content and simply a measure. Any task filled within the abstract units of time can ideally be intensified and shortened. Postone describes the “progress” of abstract time as closely tied to the “progress” of capitalism as a form of life, a temporal form that not only emerged historically with the development of a bourgeois class but that “has also helped to constitute those interests historically (indeed, the very category of ‘interests’), and it expresses a form of domination beyond that of the dominating class.”10 Abstract time becomes not simply a different measure or experience of time, but becomes a primary measure of labour expenditure and intensity. “Time expenditure is transformed from a result of activity”, explains Postone,
into a normative measure for activity. […] The time itself, however, has become independent of activity – whether individual, social, or natural. It has become an independent variable, measured in constant, continuous, commensurable, and interchangeable conventional units (hours, minutes, seconds), which serves as an absolute measure of motion and of labor qua expenditure. Events and action in general, labour and production in particular, now take place within and are determined by time – a time that has become abstract, absolute, and homogenous. The temporal domination constituted by the forms of the commodity and capital is not restricted to the process of production but extends into all areas of life.11
Just as the pressure to squeeze more production out of an acre of land drove the market compulsions of agrarian capitalism,12 time becomes the new terrain within which more and more production must be extracted. As Jonathan Crary describes in 24/7, the frontiers of time – the biological barriers posed by the human need for sleep and the frustrating tendency humans have in allowing the mind to wander and dream – are increasingly targeted as barriers to be overcome. “Billions of dollars are spent every year,” Crary writes, “researching how to reduce decision-making time, how to eliminate the useless time of reflection and contemplation. This is the form of contemporary progress – the relentless capture and control of time and experience.”13
Despite the fact that the present operates always in the shadow of a (n)ever-present future, the resources of the present are indeed mobilized to produce a future that approximates a continuation of the present. The future is shaped and produced by the market in the form of derivatives, which allow for the distribution of resources in managing risk. As Esposito writes in The Future of Futures,
the future can be produced by the very operations that try to anticipate it. This is something financial markets do continuously. They sell derivatives that set the conditions for the future in the present, and look forward to how things will continue once the future is accomplished. In buying an option, one generates a constraint that influences the course of time and contributes to the creation of what will become true in the future.14
Just as the resources of the present are mobilized into a kind of fantasy of returns on a future that never quite arrives, this mobilization also locks in a continuation of the present. The future becomes constrained and controlled as a continuation of the present, with resources allocated to incorporate, absorb, mitigate and adapt to whatever adjustments need to be made. Risk and volatility are constantly mediated through derivatives to ensure the constant flow of the present into the future.
This reflective, intensifying process leave little time to spare for other needs that demand our attention. The essence of contemporary ideology is a focused and self-enclosed attention: in focusing on expectations about future rates of return, extrapolated from limited processes in the present, and in focusing on saving time, one loses sight of reality. In other respects, contemporary culture suffers from hyperactivity attention deficit disorder.15
To address the normalization of catastrophe – to address it in a mode beyond business as usual – means approaching it with different conceptions of attention and time. If capital operates, vampire-like, by sucking time and attention away from the living present, we might do well to rob this (n)ever-future of some of its potency.16
Attention, then, as the subjective experience of cognition in and through time, is increasingly bound to processes that are mobilized in expectation of future return, while simultaneously locking in and constraining the future as a managed continuation of the present. In a context of ongoing catastrophe where preventable human misery and death is not only normal but increasing in scale, this poses a dilemma. As demands for ethical responses and interventions in the present (to save life and mitigate catastrophe) increase in importance and scale, attention will increasingly be bound to the temporalities of capital accumulation, not only unavailable to intervene but explicitly focused on perpetuating and exacerbating the causes of catastrophe itself. Writes Goodchild,
2. Foreclosing Futures, De-Politicizing Catastrophe
In assessing the depiction of ecological catastrophe and apocalyptic futures in popular culture, Eric Swyngedouw notes that current apocalyptic narratives no longer carry any of the redemptive or transformational qualities that characterized previous apocalyptic narratives.17 While traditional apocalyptic versions promised a hope of redemption, a second coming, or a world reborn, the imaginaries of environmental catastrophe and apocalypse are “leaving behind any hope of rebirth or renewal … in favour of an unquenchable fascination with being on the verge of an end that never comes.”18 Drawing from German critic Klaus Scherpe, Swyngedouw argues that
This is not simply apocalypse now, but apocalypse forever. It is a vision that does not suggest, prefigure or expect the necessity of an event that will alter history… The environmentally apocalyptic future, forever postponed, neither promises redemption nor does it possess a name; it is pure negativity.19
Swyngedouw argues that the maintenance of such apocalyptic imaginaries is an integral part of the cultural politics of capitalism, serving to depoliticize and displace social antagonisms. Rather than have any kind of political or democratic debate about possible futures and going about selecting a trajectory, “we have to make sure that radical techno-managerial and socio-cultural transformations, organized within the horizons of a capitalist order that is beyond dispute, are initiated … within the contours of the existing state and situation … so that nothing really has to change.”20
The socio-cultural and political effects of this temporal displacement of political antagonism have been observed by a number of commentators. They relate to Fredric Jameson’s observation about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism;21 to Mark Fisher’s critique of capitalist realism, the rise of There Is No Alternative (TINA)22 and the “slow cancellation of the future,”23 and similar remarks by Zizek on the lack of debate regarding the future and the fascination with cosmic catastrophe.24 Discussing Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, Steven Shaviro notes that
The allure of disaster movies, in an age of capitalist realism, is that they seem to offer us a way out – indeed, the only conceivable way out. Over the past few decades, endless rounds of privatization and austerity, not to mention widespread environmental degradation, have already deprived us of a future. The world of our hopes and dreams has in fact already ended: our day-to-day existence just needs to catch up with this fact. And so our only chance for release from the continuing soft disaster of our lives is for this disaster to become truly universal. If the world ends, then at least we will be freed from the rapacity of financial institutions, and from our ever-increasing burdens of debt. The cinematic spectacle of disaster is in itself intensely gratifying, as well: we see destroyed, before our very eyes, that “immense collection of commodities” after which we have always striven, upon which we have focused all our desires, and which has always ended up disappointing us.26
The paralysis of the present belongs not simply in the realm of the political or the phantasmagoria of the cinematic: capitalist innovation itself shows signs of decline. Robert Gordon has argued that low rates of investment in research and development in new technology has resulted in a relative stagnation – where technological development relies primarily on technologies developed in the 60s and 70s.26 (Coincidentally, this was an era of strong trade unionism and government investment in research and development.) Slow rates of technological innovation trouble the writers of the Economist.27 Leigh Phillips suggests that as capitalist technological innovation is driven in part by efforts to circumvent increasing demands of labour, the last decades of weakened labour organizing have halted pressure on capital to innovate. Why are there no flying cars, and why have the easily resolvable problems plaguing humanity, such as hunger, poverty and disease, not been wiped out? Provocatively, Phillips inverts Marx’s dictum about history and class struggle: “without class struggle, there is no history.”28 The apocalyptic rut we find ourselves in results both from a lack of pressure on capital to develop, as well as the failure of the political left to articulate a compelling imaginary beyond capitalism.
For Swyngedouw, the use of apocalyptic imaginary to maintain ‘ecologies of fear’ that perpetually displace, delay and suspend social antagonism structures the post-political condition. Ecologies of fear conceal and simultaneously nurture a reactionary politics, which encourages technocratic governance and managerial logic in all aspects of life. Techno-managerial planning and expert administration regulate human life, all while disavowing social antagonism by “displacing conflict and disagreement on to the terrain of consensually manageable problems, expert knowledge and interest intermediation.”29 Critique, dissent and conflict are removed from the realm of politics, while management technique is brought to bear on managing a singular Economy or singular Environment, on behalf of some homogenous People (whose antagonistic interests with regards to the Economy or Environment are completely ignored).
Less abstractly: the danger of ecological catastrophe, while real, is currently and always will be filtered through, interpreted by, and responded to by the entirety of the socio-political forces that exist. The danger is not the catastrophic, but retaining this very same and current array of socio-political forces to deal with it: the danger is allowing what is currently normal, the simple continuation of the present, endlessly into the future.30 The temporal concentration of attention on the future-return, to the detriment of the present, is paired with a projection of any and all potential social antagonisms in the present into a future catastrophe. Just as the present is constantly leveraged into the future for an accounting that never ‘arrives,’ present social antagonisms are constantly projected into a never-really occurring future catastrophe, curtailing and endlessly deferring any radically differentiated or opposed ecological, social or political desires (these, too, never ‘arrive’). Both processes – of drawing attention and economic production into a never fulfilled future, and projecting existing antagonisms and divisions into a catastrophe that never comes – redirect energy from the present and its potentialities, conflicts, and possibilities.
4. What is the spatial form of our present catastrophe?
If the catastrophic is an interminable continuation of the present, what might it resemble? More specifically: how does human habitation and the built environment co-exist with the catastrophic processes of the present? Urban theorist Andy Merrifield proposes neo-Haussmannization as a lens through which to consider the globalization of capitalist urbanization. Drawing from the example of Haussmann’s Paris in the Second Empire,31 Merrifield proposes that what emerged in Paris has now gone global:
Neo-Haussmannization signifies a new riff on an old tale of urban redevelopment, of divide and rule through urban change, of altering and upscaling the urban physical environment to alter the social and political environment. What happened to mid-nineteenth-century Paris is now happening globally, not only in big capital cities and orchestrated by powerful city and national political-economic forces, but in all cities, orchestrated by transnational financial and corporate elites everywhere, endorsed by their respective national governments. While these class forces in and out of government aren’t always consciously conspiring, they nonetheless create a global orthodoxy, one that’s both creating and tearing apart a new urban fabric, one that clothes the whole wide world.32
Following Merrifield’s proposal, we might read contemporary urbanization-as-neo-Haussmannization in three principal ways. First, as clearances, displacing inconvenient populations to more manageable areas;33 second, as boulevard-building, with modern infrastructure no longer simply grand boulevards but now consisting of highways and flows of energy, finance, and communications infrastructure;34 and third as real estate speculation driving and accompanying gentrification.35
While the scale and complexity of urbanization within city-region constellations increases with this phenomenon of planetary urbanization, the ‘edges’ or boundaries of the urban disappear. What may have once been thought of as a boundary such as nature or wilderness exists no longer. While city limits may be drawn up for political purposes, the processes and transactions (material and financial) of urbanization exert their influence across the entirety of the planet: from national parks and managed forests and wildlife to melting glaciers, to the Pacific garbage gyre to outer-space debris. As such, thinking about urban space has to eschew any notion of nature-vs-civilization, of urban vs nature: following Neil Smith, all natures are produced and stitched into the fabric of the urban itself;
No part of the earth’s surface, the atmosphere, the oceans, the geological substratum, or the biological superstratum are immune from transformation by capital. In the form of a price tag, every use-value is delivered an invitation to the labor process, and capital – by its nature the quintessential socialite – is driven to make good on every invitation.36
In a context of planetary urbanization, there exists then the disintegration of the ‘hinterland,’ as Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid explain: the formerly peripheral urban zones “are being reconfigured as they are functionalized – whether as back office and warehousing locations, global sweatshops […] resource extraction areas […] to facilitate the continued expansion of industrial urbanization and its associated planetary urban networks.”37 Similarly, as the formerly-peripheral hinterlands are re-folded into the purposes of capital accumulation, wilderness also disappears:
erstwhile ‘wilderness’ spaces are being transformed and degraded through the cumulative socioecological consequences of unfettered worldwide urbanization. In this way the world’s oceans, alpine regions, the equatorial rainforests, major deserts, the arctic and polar zones and even the earth’s atmosphere itself, are increasingly interconnected with the rhythms of planetary urbanization at every geographical scale.38
There remains no ‘outside’ to planetary urbanization, real or imagined, but merely varying intensities of influence.
Case 1: Malartic: Repurposed hinterland, produced nature, extractivist gentrification
First settled in a 1920s gold rush, Malartic is a small town, population 3,449, located on the Canadian Shield in the northwestern region of Quebec known as Abitibi, a 600 kilometer drive north-west from Montréal. It is currently Canada’s largest open-pit mine in an inhabited area. Malartic mine, a gold mine, is Canada’s largest open-pit mine in an urban area.
When announced, the project would involve digging a crater that in its final size would be 2 kilometres long, 780 metres wide, and 400 metres deep at the south end of the small town of Malartic; that the mine would use 11 metric tons of cyanide, 25 million litres of water, and 30 metric tons of other chemicals every day; that it would generate some 55,000 metric tons of sterile waste; and that each ton of ore treated would yield approximately one gram of gold.39
As this mining technology does not pursue ‘veins’ of gold ore (these have been long exhausted), the extraction of massive amounts of material for miniscule amounts of gold creates an incredible open-pit mine – as opposed to the mining shafts and galleries known to mines of the past. Shockingly, two hundred homes and five public institutions within Malartic were destroyed for the mine;40 streets that were once part of the town are now part of the mine’s extraction pit. In addition to the mine pit itself, large tailings ponds surround the site, where waste and processed ore are stored.
In a study by INSPQ, the Institut National de Santé Publique du Québec, interviews with 93 Malartic residents over 2012-2013 found that while the mine had beneficial economic effects for certain residents,
In April of 2017, Québec’s provincial government, led by the Québec Liberal Party, approved a $200-million expansion of the mine. The expansion would essentially double the current footprint of the mine, and includes the $53-million diversion of a highway, deforestation, and access to 203-million tonnes of ore.42 In May 2017, Malartic residents launched a $40-million class-action lawsuit against the Malartic mine for damages suffered due to dust, noise and daily blasting.43
Malartic presents a stunning example of Merrifield’s neo-Haussmannization thesis in a context of planetary urbanization. This former hinterland is now the site of intense resource extraction, producing a 2-kilometre crater (potentially double this size, given the recent expansion approval), alongside a redirected highway-boulevard and its own complex of tailings ponds and mountains of processed rock ore – a new ‘produced’ nature, a massive terraforming project.
Homes and streets were cleared and destroyed. The formerly peripheral town has quite literally been gobbled up, in part, by the mine. The mine becomes both a kind of infrastructure and speculation: a boulevard of resource-extraction, step one in a global supply chain. The former residents were displaced not by real estate speculation but by global financial speculation on the price of gold: it was not their homes or even the land beneath their feet that priced them out of the area, but the ore beneath their homes whose market value trumped whatever use-value their home provided. In a stunning example of extractivist gentrification, they were displaced not by real-estate and housing markets driving prices up, bringing along a wave of colonizing nouveau-riches, but instead by the rare-earth mineral content of the ore beneath their feet.
Case 2: Montréal and Expo 67: Clearances, terraforming, and attempts at human habitat
Montréal’s Expo ’67 under the lens of neo-Haussmannization makes a peculiar case. First, clearances: the Faubourg à m’lasse,44 an older working-class neighbourhood, was demolished in 1963-64 to make way for Place Radio-Canada,45 a skyscraper completed in 1973 housing the broadcast network. Five thousand people were displaced.46 Among the structures razed were 678 residences, twelve markets, thirteen restaurants, eight garages and a bicycle shop. Residents of the neighbourhood were compensated $12.50 per destroyed structure.47
The building of Place Radio-Canada itself in the place of this working-class neighbourhood could easily be considered a modern incarnation of neo-Haussmannian boulevard building; home to the television and radio communications networks of the time, it served as a vital piece of communications infrastructure. But greater examples exist: consider the construction of artificial islands in the middle of the St. Lawrence river.
Before construction began, Ile Ste-Hélène was half its current size, and Ile Notre-Dame consisted of mud flats. The construction of Ile Ste-Hélène and Ile Notre-Dame required the trucking in of 15 million tons of rock and earth, and the dredging of 6.8 million tons from the river bottom.48 Much of the rock came from the excavation of the Metro in 1965.49 Faced with nuisance shadflies on the island, 16,000 kilograms of the pesticide DDT were used on the site.50 The day before opening, portions of the grass were painted green to make the area more appealing.51
What is the construction of the islands other than an extreme ‘production’ of nature, the extension of urban space into the flow of the St. Lawrence itself? That it was built for the purposes of Expo ’67 – isn’t the Expo a kind of socio-political infrastructure in itself, maintaining and establishing elite opinion and performing important ideological work regarding the role of the nation-state and the West in the middle of the Cold War? Of course, there are the numerous pavilions, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome – all intended as temporary structures for the purposes of the Expo. The event of the Expo, bracketed within a span of weeks, was the necessary and desired element in this effort.
Lastly, consider Habitat ’67, Moshe Safdie’s ‘new system of living.’ An attempt to create modular, pre-fabricated housing, taking the advantages of both high-density modern housing and suburban sprawl, Safdie argued that “we had to find new forms of housing that would re-create, in a high density environment, the relationships and the amenities of the house and the village.”52 Safdie imagined not a building but an interlocking system that could be applied to any number of sites, providing the privacy and homeliness of suburban life in a high-density setting, without the isolating or alienating features of the suburbs or high-rises.53
While Safdie’s Habitat had a high per-cost unit and did not incur a new wave of affordable, modular, high-density housing, this can hardly be attributed to an architectural failure. North America was gripped by the fever of suburbanization and white flight, and government policy and state-backed financing overwhelmingly favoured suburban development, with the Canadian government largely excluding public housing and co-ops as housing.54 Presently, left to the market, suites in Habitat 67 fetch prices from $524,800 to $1,325,000.55
While it is common to consider the projects surrounding Expo ’67 as architectural marvels and hubristic failures of high modernism, these are too simplistic and reduce the issue to simply the structural-spatial element of architecture, forgetting the role of the social. The modernist or utopian visions proposed by Safdie and others implied also different ways of living, of inhabiting and using and living in space, requiring also new methods of procuring, constructing, establishing standards and building. The visions of society afforded by architecture in the era conveyed a sense that
people in the future would have more time away from work, free from the pursuit of base sustenance, was a driving factor in many of the visions of the period. … The promise of the so-called ‘three-day working week’ was a defining factor looming over the development of architectural planning throughout the 1970s, not only in the mainstream of architecture but also in the more abstract and revolutionary proposals of the period.56
In effect, modernists drew up plans for a way of living and a society that was not mediated through a market, and whose primary operating principle was not capital accumulation. “The difficulty with so-called high modernism,” explains Harvey, “was not … its ‘totalizing’ vision, but its persistent habit of privileging things and spatial forms over social processes, and so adopting a metaphysical approach that presumed that social engineering could be accomplished through the engineering of physical form.”57 The lack of innovation in housing reflects a “the stubbornness of the house as a physical, political and economic form, and also in the lack of a proper ideological counterattack to the resurgence of historicism and reactionary postmodernism.”58 The ‘nostalgia for the present’, to borrow a phrase from Jameson, that is exhibited in the temerity of the suburban home betrays how very conservative housing architecture still remains.
Both the cases of Malartic and Expo 67 illustrate the way in which planetary urbanization, in its neo-Haussmannian character, structure and restructure space. Clearances displaced the residents of Malartic for the sake of resource extraction; clearances displaced the working-class residents of Faubourg à m’lasse for the sake of a modernist Radio-Canada high-rise. The ‘boulevards’ or infrastructures installed in both examples vary widely – one a first step in resource extraction on a commodity globally speculated upon, the other the construction of artificial islands and modernist housing for a spectacular event. And lastly, shifting market value contributed to the dramatic shifts in the urban form, with fine examples of creative destruction: from extractivist gentrification in Malartic, to the clearances of Faubourg à m’lasse, to the then-utopian and now-exclusive Habitat 67. The market determines how these places are used, with human use-values made secondary. Lastly, the production of urban nature(s) and the end of any ‘natural’ limit or boundary to the urban is evident in the production of the extraction site in Malartic as it is in the construction of artificial islands in Montréal. Planetary urbanization ties together these examples: While Expo ‘67 is born of a utopian faith in progress and Malartic an apparent dismal acquiescence to the demands of global commodity speculation, both are expressions of capital’s expansion planet-wide, of capital’s productive forces brought to bear on particular places through time.
To let the market rule is to ensure continued catastrophe. The logic of capital accumulation endlessly disrupts ecologies, landscapes, and people’s lives. “The simplest approach here,” to borrow from David Harvey, “is to eliminate those mechanisms which serve to generate the theory… If we eliminate this mechanism, we will presumably eliminate the result.”59 But how might one begin to work towards a world beyond the catastrophe of the market?
5. Make Catastrophe Weird Again: emphasizing the capitalist grotesque and proposing utopia
We tend to think of history as a record of past events, of things that are over and done with. We find it difficult to view our current moment as profoundly historical. Yet, the present is invariably saturated with elements of the future, with possibilities that have not yet come to fruition, and may not do so—as the road to the future is always contested.26
- David McNally, Global Slump
The argument thus far has followed three main ideas. First, that the catastrophic is an embedded quality within capitalism itself, with a dangerous capacity to normalize the catastrophic into every day life. Secondly, that a successful temporal displacement of time, energy, attention, and even antagonism, from the present to the future, serves to endlessly perpetuate this normalized catastrophism. Thirdly, that the spatial pattern produced by planetary urbanization – the built environment for capital and its global deployment of productive forces – results in stunning transformations of nature, all while engaging in clearances, displacement, and the construction of infrastructure.
The problem at this juncture is twofold: how might one emphasize the inhuman logic of capital, its prioritization of exchange-values over very real and necessary use-values, such as human habitation and survival? How might the normalization and embeddedness of the catastrophic violence of capital be singled out and denatured, exposing how preventable catastrophe is? How might we break the temporal recursion that endlessly reproduces the present into the future, and imagine a future to what matters – human needs – is possible?
Horror and science fiction, as literary genres, offer important resources in reformulating the everyday to expose its grotesque and inhuman content. “What is most striking about capitalist monstrosity,” writes David McNally, “is its elusive everydayness, its apparently seamless integration into the banal and mundane rhythms of quotidian existence.”61 A primary task in denaturing the catastrophe of everyday life involves exposing its truly horrific content – a society which hinges individual survival on the selling of life-energies to others on the market. McNally argues that horror as a genre excels at highlighting the capitalist grotesque. Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, articulates fears surrounding the commodification of bodies and corpses of the poor for use by medical surgeons and anatomists, as well as the rejection and exclusion of entire populations through the enclosure of the commons. Zombie stories come to us from the world of plantation slavery, where slavery was (in the Lockean formulation) a deferred death, with zombies performing the role of reanimated dead labour. Horror forms an important role in Marx’s Capital, which
overflows, as we shall see, with detailed narratives of the ‘monstrous outrages’ of capital: factories in which ‘Dante would have found the worst horrors of his Inferno surpassed’; unrelenting ‘traffic in human flesh’; the turning of ‘children’s blood’ into capital; the ‘crippling of body and mind’ of the workers; ‘the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population’ of the Americas; ‘the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins’; ‘the vampire’ that ‘will not let go while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited’. To name these horrors is also to perform a counter magic to the sorcery of capital.62
Alongside the use of horror to re-describe and reformulate the present, the utopian stands as an important resource in offering a departure from the catastrophic present. The postmodern turn saw utopian grand narratives cast in great suspicion, however, the socio-political and economic context of dull capitalist rationality which conditions the present is itself utopian. As Polanyi argues, the idea of a self-adjusting market is utopian,63 and this Hayekian neoliberal dream continues to animate the world today in normalizing the catastrophe we inhabit.
Utopia, an imaginary non-place, makes possible the possible redscription of current social relations and power, allowing for a new consideration of the existing world as well as the potential articulation of the new. As Paul Ricoeur notes,
For it is beginning with this strange spatial extraterrestrialness – this non-place in the literal sense of the world – that we can take a fresh look at our reality, in relation to which nothing can henceforth be taken for granted. The field of the possible now extends out beyond the real. […] Utopia is the mode in which we radically rethink what family, consumption, government, religion and so on are. From ‘nowhere’ springs the most formidable questioning of what is. […] Utopia … is the function of social subversion.64
As Srnicek and Williams argue, “various modernities are possible, and new visions of the future are essential for the left. Such images are a necessary supplement to any transformative political project.”65 An emphasis on a radical futurity that presents radical departures from the present – prioritizing use-values over exchange values, and expressing the antagonisms that would result from such a project – is necessary for the formulation of a world that no longer normalizes catastrophe.
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———. Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires, and Global Capitalism. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011.
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1 Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (Verso Books, 2002), 9.
2 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001), 167.
3 James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (Regina, Saskatchewan: University of Regina Press, 2014), 12. Daschuk cites Karl H. Schlesier, ed., Plains Indians, A.D. 500-1500: The Archaeological Past of Historic Groups (Norman: Univ of Oklahoma Pr, 1994).
4 Daschuk, Clearing the Plains, 165–68.
5 Eddie Yuen, “The Politics of Failure Have Failed: The Environmental Movement and Catastrophism,” in Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth (PM Press, 2012), 35.
6 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge (Mass.); London: Harvard University Press, 2003), 473.
7 Philip Goodchild, Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety (London; New York: Routledge, 2002), 143.
8 Goodchild, 144.
9 E. P. Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” Past & Present, no. 38 (1967): 56–97, https://doi.org/10.2307/649749.
10 Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (Cambridge [England]; New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 213–14.
11 Postone, 214–15.
12 Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (New York; London: Verso, 2014), 40.
13 See, for example, Ellen Meiksins Woods, The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (London: Verso, 2002).
14 Elena Esposito, The Future of Futures. (Edward Elgar Pub., 2011), 4, http://www.myilibrary.com?id=302424.
15 Goodchild, Capitalism and Religion, 144.
16 Drawing here, of course, from Marx: “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him. If the labourer consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist.” Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes (London; New York, N.Y., USA: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, 1990), 342.
17 Erik Swyngedouw, “Apocalypse Forever?,” Theory, Culture & Society 27, no. 2–3 (March 1, 2010): 218, https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276409358728.
18 Martin Jay, “The Apocalyptic Imagination and the Inability to Mourn,” in Rethinking Imagination: Culture and Creativity, ed. Gillian Robinson and John F. Rundell (Psychology Press, 1994), 33.
19 Swyngedouw, “Apocalypse Forever?,” 219.
21 Fredric Jameson, “Future City,” New Left Review, II, no. 21 (June 2003): 65–79. Jameson elsewhere phrases the problem: “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imagination.” Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time (New York; Chichester: Columbia University Press, 1994), xii.
22 Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester, UK; Washington [D.C.]: Zero Books, 2009).
23 pmilat, Mark Fisher : The Slow Cancellation Of The Future, Everything Comes Down to Aesthetics and Political Economy (MaMa, Zagreb, 2014), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCgkLICTskQ.
24 Astra Taylor, Zizek!, Documentary (Zeitgeist Films, 2005).
25 Steven Shaviro, “MELANCHOLIA, Or, The Romantic Anti-Sublime,” Sequence 1, no. 1 (2012): 8, http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/sequence/files/2012/12/MELANCHOLIA-or-The-Romantic-Anti-Sublime-SEQUENCE-1.1-2012-Steven-Shaviro.pdf. Thanks also to Matthew Flisfeder for his discussion of this quote; Matthew Flisfeder, “Communism and the End of the World,” Public 24, no. 48 (December 1, 2013): 105–16, https://doi.org/10.1386/public.24.48.105_1.
26 Robert J. Gordon, “Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds,” Working Paper (National Bureau of Economic Research, August 2012), https://doi.org/10.3386/w18315.
27 “Has the Ideas Machine Broken Down?,” The Economist, accessed October 3, 2017, https://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21569381-idea-innovation-and-new-technology-have-stopped-driving-growth-getting-increasing.
28 Leigh Phillips, Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff, 2015, 153.
29 Swyngedouw, “Apocalypse Forever?,” 225.
30 Daniel Cohen recently discussed this in response to the New York Magazine’s profile of catastrophic climate change. “But is the gravest threat pure runaway climate change? No: it’s too little, too late, plus race and class war, plus experiments with the planet. It’s the danger, essentially, of a vicious right-wing minority imposing the privilege of the affluent few over everyone else. That’s the real and scary (and political) story.” Daniel Aldana Cohen, “New York Mag’s Climate Disaster Porn Gets It Painfully Wrong,” accessed October 13, 2017, http://jacobinmag.com/2017/07/climate-change-new-york-magazine-response.
31 For an introduction to the dynamics of Second Empire Paris, see David Harvey, Paris, Capital of Modernity (New York: Routledge, 2003).
32 Andy Merrifield, The New Urban Question, 2014, x, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=714229.
33 Neo-Haussmannization “has peripheralized millions of people everywhere to the extent that it makes no sense anymore to talk about these peoples being peripheral… Bonapartism projects its urban tradition onto planetary space.” Merrifield, 29.
34 Consider, for example, the growing role of infrastructure in managing and controlling urban space; see Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, 2016.
35 On the global scope of gentrification, see Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (London; New York: Routledge, 1996).
36 Smith, 79.
37 Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid, “Planetary Urbanization,” in Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization, ed. Neil Brenner (Berlin: Jovis, 2014), 162.
38 Brenner and Schmid.
39Alain Deneault and William Sacher, Imperial Canada Inc.: Legal Haven of Choice for the World’s Mining Industries, trans. Fred A. Reed and Robin Philpot (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2012), 163.
40 Deneault and Sacher, 164.
41 Geneviève Brisson et al., Individual and Social Effects of Changes Related to the Resumption of Mining Activity in Malartic: 2006-2013 : Key Messages and Summary, 2015, http://collections.banq.qc.ca/ark:/52327/2566673. For the full report, see Effets individuels et sociaux des changements liés à la reprise des activités minières à Malartic, https://www.inspq.qc.ca/pdf/publications/1959_Effets_Changements_Activites_Minieres_Malartic.pdf.
42 Henry Lazenby, “Quebec Govt Approves Canadian Malartic Openpit Expansion,” Mining Weekly, accessed October 13, 2017, http://www.miningweekly.com/article/quebec-govt-approves-canadian-malartic-openpit-expansion-2017-04-20.
43 Presse Canadienne, “Malartic Mine Class-Action Lawsuit Authorized,” Montreal Gazette (blog), May 5, 2017, http://montrealgazette.com/business/malartic-mine-class-action-lawsuit-authorized; “Landmark Decision: Quebec Court Approves Class Suit Against Gold Giant Canadian Malartic | MiningWatch Canada,” accessed October 13, 2017, https://miningwatch.ca/news/2017/5/5/landmark-decision-quebec-court-approves-class-suit-against-gold-giant-canadian.
44 Translated literally, 'Molasses Suburb.' The neighbourhood’s name may stem from molasses, as less expensive than sugar, having a connotation with lower incomes. It may also have to do with the proximity to the port, where barrels of molasses may have been stored.
45 “Le Faubourg À M’lasse,” Mémoires des Montréalais, December 11, 2015, https://ville.montreal.qc.ca/memoiresdesmontrealais/le-faubourg-mlasse.
46 “Les Quartiers Disparus de Montréal : Le Secteur de La Société Radio-Canada (Faubourg À M’lasse). 9 Juillet 1963. | Archives de Montréal,” accessed October 14, 2017, http://archivesdemontreal.com/2013/10/15/les-quartiers-disparus-de-montreal-le-secteur-de-la-societe-radio-canada-faubourg-a-mlasse-9-juillet-1963/.
47 Zone radio-Radio-Canada.ca and Zone radio-Radio-Canada.ca, “Le « Faubourg à m’lasse », ce quartier disparu | Le 15-18,” Le « Faubourg à m’lasse », ce quartier disparu | Le 15-18 | ICI Radio-Canada Première, accessed October 14, 2017, http://v1.radio-canada.ca/emissions/le_15_18/2015-2016/chronique.asp?idChronique=401641.
48 Peter H. Aykroyd, The Anniversary Compulsion: Canada’s Centennial Celebrations: A Model Mega-Anniversary (Dundurn, 1992), 167.
49 Tracey Lindeman, “Happy 149th, Canada! Remember Our 100th?,” CBC News, accessed October 14, 2017, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/canada-149-centennial-1967-1.3654458.
50 Tamzin El-Fityani, “Pesticide Use at Expo ’67: Can We Find the Evidence 40 Years Later?” 2010, https://qspace.library.queensu.ca/handle/1974/5593.
51 “Expo 67 Saw ‘the World Coming to Us,’” The Globe and Mail, March 31, 2009, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/expo-67-saw-the-world-coming-to-us/article1075142/; John Lownsbrough, The History of Canada Series: The Best Place To Be: Expo ’67 And Its Time (Penguin Canada, 2012).
52 Moshe Safdie and John Kettle, Beyond Habitat (Cambridge, Mass. and London (tr. Montreal): M.I.T. Press, 1973), 53.
53 Douglas Murphy, Last Futures: Nature, Technology and the End of Architecture (London; New York (N.Y.): Verso, 2016), 21–22.
54 Richard Harris, Creeping Conformity: How Canada Became Suburban, 1900-1960 (Toronto ; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division, 2004).
55 Jeremy Hazan, “Montreal’s Habitat 67 All-New $1,325,000 Penthouse Looks Freaking Insane,” accessed October 14, 2017, https://www.mtlblog.com/lifestyle/montreals-habitat-67-all-new-dollar1325000-penthouse-looks-freaking-insane; Jeremy Hazan, “What 6 Different $1,000,000 Apartments Look Like In Montreal’s Habitat ’67,” accessed October 14, 2017, https://www.mtlblog.com/lifestyle/what-6-different-1000000-apartments-looks-like-in-montreals-habitat-67.
56 Murphy, Last Futures, 112.
57 David Harvey, “Cities or Urbanization?,” in Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization, ed. Neil Brenner, 2014, 62.
58 Murphy, Last Futures, 135.
59 David Harvey, Social Justice and the City (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009), 137, http://site.ebrary.com/id/10405168. Harvey here refers to competitive bidding for the us of land in cities; this idea could be applied more generally to markets everywhere.
60 David McNally, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (Oakland (CA): PM Press, 2011), 1.
61 David McNally, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires, and Global Capitalism (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011), 2.
62 McNally, 114.
63 Polanyi, The Great Transformation, 3.
64 Paul Ricoeur, “Imagination in Discourse and in Action,” in Rethinking Imagination: Culture and Creativity, ed. Gillian Robinson and John F Rundell (London; New York: Routledge, 1994), 132.
65 Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, 2015, 74.