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Apocalypse Forever? Post-Political Populism and the Spectre of Climate Change

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This article interrogates the relationship between two apparently disjointed themes: the consensual presentation and mainstreaming of the global problem of climate change on the one hand and the debate in political theory/philosophy that centers around the emergence and consolidation of a post-political and post-democratic condition on the other. The argument advanced in this article attempts to tease out this apparently paradoxical condition. On the one hand, the climate is seemingly politicized as never before and has been propelled high on the policy agenda. On the other hand, a number of increasingly influential political philosophers insist on how the post-politicization (or de-politicization) of the public sphere (in parallel and intertwined with processes of neoliberalization) have been key markers of the political process over the past few decades. We proceed in four steps. First, we briefly outline the basic contours of the argument and its premises. Second, we explore the ways in which the present climate conundrum is predominantly staged through the mobilization of particular apocalyptic imaginaries. Third, we argue that this specific (re-)presentation of climate change and its associated policies is sustained by decidedly populist gestures. Finally, we discuss how this particular choreographing of climate change is one of the arenas through which a post-political frame and post-democratic political configuration have been mediated.
Apocalypse Forever?
Post-political Populism and the Spectre of
Climate Change
Erik Swyngedouw
Abstract
This article interrogates the relationship between two apparently disjointed
themes: the consensual presentation and mainstreaming of the global
problem of climate change on the one hand and the debate in political
theory/philosophy that centers around the emergence and consolidation of
a post-political and post-democratic condition on the other. The argument
advanced in this article attempts to tease out this apparently paradoxical
condition. On the one hand, the climate is seemingly politicized as never
before and has been propelled high on the policy agenda. On the other
hand, a number of increasingly influential political philosophers insist on
how the post-politicization (or de-politicization) of the public sphere (in
parallel and intertwined with processes of neoliberalization) have been key
markers of the political process over the past few decades. We proceed in
four steps. First, we briefly outline the basic contours of the argument and
its premises. Second, we explore the ways in which the present climate
conundrum is predominantly staged through the mobilization of particular
apocalyptic imaginaries. Third, we argue that this specific (re-)presentation
of climate change and its associated policies is sustained by decidedly
populist gestures. Finally, we discuss how this particular choreographing of
climate change is one of the arenas through which a post-political frame
and post-democratic political configuration have been mediated.
Key words
climate change
environment populism post-democracy post-politics
Theory, Culture & Society 2010 (SAGE, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, and Singapore),
Vol. 27(2–3): 213–232
DOI: 10.1177/0263276409358728
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Climate Change and the Post-political
A spectre is haunting the entire world: but it is not that of communism....
Climate change – no more, no less than nature’s payback for what we are
doing to our precious planet – is day by day now revealing itself. Not only in
a welter of devastating scientific data and analysis but in the repeated extreme
weather conditions to which we are all, directly or indirectly, regular
observers, and, increasingly, victims. (Levene, 2005)
The Labour Party’s crowning achievement is the death of politics. There’s
nothing left to vote for. (Noel Gallagher, rock star, in The Independent,
11 November 2006: 37)
T
HIS ARTICLE interrogates the relationship between two apparently
disjointed themes: the consensual presentation and mainstreaming of
the global problem of climate change that presents a clear and present
danger to civilization as we know it unless urgent and immediate remedial
action is undertaken on the one hand, and the debate in political
theory/philosophy that centers around the emergence and consolidation of
a post-political and post-democratic condition on the other. While the
former insists on the urgency of politically mediated actions to retrofit the
global climate to a more benign and stable condition or, at least, on the need
to engage in interventions that might mitigate some of its more dramatic
socio-spatial and ecological consequences, the latter argues that the last few
decades have been characterized by deepening processes of de-politiciza-
tion characterized by the increasing evacuation of the proper political
dimension from the public terrain as technocratic management and consen-
sual policy-making has sutured the spaces of democratic politics.
We shall proceed in four steps. First, we shall briefly outline the
basic contours of the argument and its premises. In a second part, we
explore the ways in which the present climate conundrum is predominantly
staged through the mobilization of particular apocalyptic imaginaries. In a
third part, we shall explore how the specific (re)-presentation of climate
change and its associated policies is sustained by decidedly populist
gestures. In the final part, we shall argue that this particular choreograph-
ing of climate change is one of the arenas through which a post-political
frame and post-democratic political configurations have been mediated.
Throughout, we maintain that current hegemonic climate change policies
ultimately re inforce processes of de-politicization and the socio-political
status quo rather than, as some suggest and hope, offering a wedge that
might contribute to achieving socio-ecologically more egalitarian transfor-
mations (Castree, 2009). We shall conclude with an appeal to rethink the
properly political, to re-establish the horizon of democratic environmental
politics.
214 Theory, Culture & Society 27(2–3)
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The Argument
Barbarism or Socialism. (K. Marx)
Kyoto [Copenhagen] or the Apocalypse. (Green saying)
The argument advanced here attempts to interrogate this apparently para-
doxical condition whereby the climate is politicized as never before while
a group of increasingly influential political philosophers insist that the post-
politicization of the public sphere (in parallel and intertwined with
processes of neoliberalization) have been key markers of the political
process over the past few decades.
Over the past decade or so, a widespread consensus has emerged over
the state of nature and the precarious environmental conditions that may
lead to the premature end of civilization as we know it (IPCC, 2007). The
environmental conditions and, in particular, global climate change are
increasingly staged as signalling a great danger, of epic dimensions, that, if
unheeded, might radically perturb, if not announce the premature end of
civilization before its sell-by date has passed. The imminent danger to the
future of our common human and non-human world calls for radical changes
in all manner of domains, from the way we produce and organize the trans-
formation and socio-physical metabolism of nature to routines and cultures
of consumption (for a standard review, see Giddens, 2009). A fragile consen-
sus on both the ‘nature’ of the problem and the arrays of managerial and
institutional technologies to mitigate the most dramatic consequences has
been reached, despite differences of view, opinion or position (Hulme,
2009); a consensus that is now largely shared by most political elites from
a variety of positions, business leaders, activists and the scientific commu-
nity. The few remaining sceptics are increasingly marginalized as either
maverick hardliners or conservative bullies.
This elevation of climate change and its consequences onto the terrain
of public concern and policy has unfolded in parallel to the consolidation
of a political condition that has evacuated dispute and disagreement from
the spaces of public encounter to be replaced by a consensually established
frame that interlocutors like Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Rancière and Chantal
Mouffe define as post-democratic or post-political (Mouffe, 2005; Rancière,
2006; Žižek, 1999). This post-political frame is structured around the
perceived inevitability of capitalism and a market economy as the basic
organizational structure of the social and economic order, for which there is
no alternative. The corresponding mode of governmentality is structured
around dialogical forms of consensus formation, technocratic management
and problem-focused governance, sustained by populist discursive regimes
(Swyngedouw, 2009). The post-political suturing of the terrain of the public
encounter is, furthermore, institutionally choreographed in the form of
post-democratic institutional configurations (Crouch, 2004; Marquand,
2004). I shall begin by accepting the transformation to a post-political and
post-democratic configuration at face value. What I am concerned with in
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this article is the historical production of such a post-political and post-
democratic regime. I contend that the environmental question in general,
and the climate change argument and how it is publicly staged in particu-
lar, has been and continues to be one of the markers through which post-
politicization is wrought. In other words, the particular way in which the
environmental condition has been elevated to a matter of public concern
can be mobilized as a way of grappling with the contested formation of a
post-political frame. The politics of climate change and, more generally, the
concern with sustainability – I maintain – are not only expressive of such
post-political and post-democratic organization, but have been among the
key arenas through which the post-political frame is forged, configured and
entrenched. This process of de-politicization – or the colonization of the
political by politics/the police – which operates through elevating the state
of nature onto the public terrain in thoroughly depoliticized ways calls for
a reconsideration of what the political is, where it is located and how the
democratic political can be recaptured.
The Desire for the Apocalypse and the Fetishization of CO
2
It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of
capitalism. (Jameson, 2003: 73)
We shall start from the attractions of the apocalyptic imaginaries that infuse
the climate change debate and through which much of the public concern
with the climate change argument is sustained. The distinct millennialist
discourse around the climate has co-produced a widespread consensus that
the earth and many of its component parts are in an ecological bind that
may short-circuit human and non-human life in the not too distant future if
urgent and immediate action to retrofit nature to a more benign equilibrium
is postponed for much longer. Irrespective of the particular views of Nature
held by different individuals and social groups, consensus has emerged over
the seriousness of the environmental condition and the precariousness of
our socio-ecological balance (Swyngedouw, forthcoming). BP has re-
branded itself as ‘Beyond Petroleum’ to certify its environmental creden-
tials, Shell plays a more eco-sensitive tune, eco-activists of various political
or ideological stripes and colours engage in direct action in the name of
saving the planet, New Age post-materialists join the chorus that laments
the irreversible decline of ecological amenities, eminent scientists enter the
public domain to warn of pending ecological catastrophe, politicians try to
outmanoeuvre each other in brandishing the ecological banner, and a wide
range of policy initiatives and practices, performed under the motif of
‘sustainability’, are discussed, conceived and implemented at all geograph-
ical scales. Al Gore’s evangelical film An Inconvenient Truth won him the
Nobel Peace price, surely one of the most telling illustrations of how eco -
logical matters are elevated to the terrain of a global humanitarian cause
(see also Giddens, 2009). While there is certainly no agreement on what
exactly Nature is and how to relate to it, there is a virtually unchallenged
216 Theory, Culture & Society 27(2–3)
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consensus over the need to be more ‘environmentally’ sustainable if disaster
is to be avoided; a climatic sustainability that centres around stabilizing the
CO
2
content in the atmosphere (Boykoff et al., forthcoming).
This consensual framing is itself sustained by a particular scientific
discourse.
1
The complex translation and articulation between what Bruno
Latour (2004) would call matters of fact versus matters of concern has been
thoroughly short-circuited. The changing atmospheric composition, marked
by increasing levels of CO
2
and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,
is largely caused by anthropogenic activity, primarily (although not exclu-
sively) as a result of the burning of fossilized or captured CO
2
(in the form
of oil, gas, coal, wood) and the disappearance of CO
2
sinks and their
associated capture processes (through deforestation for example). These
undisputed matters of fact are, without proper political intermediation,
translated into matters of concern. The latter, of course, are eminently polit-
ical in nature. Yet, in the climate change debate, the political nature of
matters of concern is disavowed to the extent that the facts in themselves
are elevated, through a short-circuiting procedure, on to the terrain of the
political, where climate change is framed as a global humanitarian cause.
The matters of concern are thereby relegated to a terrain beyond dispute,
to one that does not permit dissensus or disagreement. Scientific expertise
becomes the foundation and guarantee for properly constituted politics/
policies.
In this consensual setting, environmental problems are generally
staged as universally threatening to the survival of humankind, announcing
the premature termination of civilization as we know it and sustained by
what Mike Davis (1999) aptly called ‘ecologies of fear’. The discursive
matrix through which the contemporary meaning of the environmental
condition is woven is one quilted systematically by the continuous invoca-
tion of fear and danger, the spectre of ecological annihilation or at least
seriously distressed socio-ecological conditions for many people in the near
future. ‘Fear’ is indeed the crucial node through which much of the current
environmental narrative is woven, and continues to feed the concern with
‘sustainability’. This cultivation of ‘ecologies of fear’, in turn, is sustained
in part by a particular set of phantasmagorical imaginaries (Katz, 1995).
The apocalyptic imaginary of a world without water, or at least with endemic
water shortages, ravaged by hurricanes whose intensity is amplified by
climate change; pictures of scorched land as global warming shifts the geo-
pluvial regime and the spatial variability of droughts and floods; icebergs
that disintegrate around the poles as ice melts into the sea, causing the sea
level to rise; alarming reductions in biodiversity as species disappear or are
threatened by extinction; post-apocalyptic images of waste lands reminis-
cent of the silent ecologies of the region around Chernobyl; the threat of
peak-oil that, without proper management and technologically innovative
foresight, would return society to a Stone Age existence; the devastation of
wildfires, tsunamis, diseases like SARS, avian flu, Ebola or HIV, all these
imaginaries of a Nature out of synch, destabilized, threatening and out of
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control are paralleled by equally disturbing images of a society that contin-
ues piling up waste, pumping CO
2
into the atmosphere, deforesting the
earth, etc. This is a process that Neil Smith appropriately refers to as
‘nature-washing’ (2008: 245). In sum, our ecological predicament is sutured
by millennial fears, sustained by an apocalyptic rhetoric and representa-
tional tactics, and by a series of performative gestures signalling an over-
whelming, mind-boggling danger, one that threatens to undermine the very
coordinates of our everyday lives and routines, and may shake up the
foundations of all we took and take for granted. Table 1 exemplifies some
of the imaginaries that are continuously invoked.
Of course, apocalyptic imaginaries have been around for a long time
as an integral part of Western thought, first of Christianity and later emerging
as the underbelly of fast-forwarding technological modernization and its
associated doomsday thinkers. However, present-day millennialism
preaches an apocalypse without the promise of redemption. Saint John’s
biblical apocalypse, for example, found its redemption in God’s infinite love.
The proliferation of modern apocalyptic imaginaries also held up the
promise of redemption: the horsemen of the apocalypse, whether riding
under the name of the proletariat, technology or capitalism, could be tamed
with appropriate political and social revolutions.
As Martin Jay argued, while traditional apocalyptic versions still held
out the hope for redemption, for a ‘second coming’, for the promise of a ‘new
dawn’, environmental apocalyptic imaginaries 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’ (1994: 33). The emergence of new
218 Theory, Culture & Society 27(2–3)
Table 1 Apocalyptic attractors
Global warming and ozone loss: Apocalypse soon
Sea levels likely to rise much faster than was predicted
Global warming is causing the Greenland ice cap to disintegrate far faster than
anyone predicted
Global warming ‘30 times quicker than it used to be’
Climate change: On the edge
(all quotes from The Independent, 17 February 2006)
WATER WARS
(The Independent, 28 February 2006)
The Four Horsemen of Industrial Society: War, Over-population, Climate Change
and Peak Oil (published on 12 Jan. 2006 by Energy Bulletin)
Pentagon warns Bush of apocalyptic climate change by 2020
(The Observer, 22 February 2004)
We have less than 100 months to act.
(Prince Charles, March 2009)
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forms of millennialism around the environmental nexus is of a particular
kind that promises neither redemption nor realization. As Klaus Scherpe
(1987) insists, 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. Derrida (referring to the nuclear threat in the 1980s)
sums this up most succinctly:
. . . here, precisely, is announced – as promise or as threat – an apocalypse
without apocalypse, an apocalypse without vision, without truth, without
revelation . . . without message and without destination, without sender and
without decidable addressee . . . an apocalypse beyond good and evil.
(1992: 66)
The environmentally apocalyptic future, forever postponed, neither
promises redemption nor does it possess a name; it is pure negativity.
The attractions of such an apocalyptic imaginary are related to a
series of characteristics. In contrast to standard left arguments about the
apocalyptic dynamics of unbridled capitalism (Mike Davis is a great
exemplar of this; see Davis, 1999, 2002), I would argue that sustaining
and nurturing apocalyptic imaginaries is an integral and vital part of the
new cultural politics of capitalism (Boltanski and Chiapello, 2007) for
which the management of fear is a central leitmotif (Badiou, 2007). At the
symbolic level, apocalyptic imaginaries are extraordinarily powerful in
disavowing or displacing social conflict and antagonisms. As such, apoca-
lyptic imaginations are decidedly populist and foreclose a proper political
framing. Or, in other words, the presentation of climate change as a global
humanitarian cause produces a thoroughly depoliticized imaginary, one
that does not revolve around choosing one trajectory rather than another, one
that is not articulated with specific political programs or socio-ecological
project or revolutions. It is this sort of mobilization without political issue
that led Alain Badiou to state that ‘ecology is the new opium for the
masses’, whereby the nurturing of the promise of a more benign retrofitted
climate exhausts the horizon of our aspirations and imaginations (Badiou,
2008; Žižek, 2008). 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 that retrofit the climate
(Swyngedouw, forthcoming). In other words, we have to change radically,
but within the contours of the existing state of the situation ‘the parti-
tion of the sensible’ in Rancière’s (1998) words, so that nothing really has
to change.
The negative desire for an apocalypse that few really believe will
realize itself (if we were to believe that the earth is really in the dismal state
we are told it is in, we would not be sitting around writing and reading arcane
academic journal articles) finds its positive injunction around a fetishist
invocation of CO
2
as the ‘thing’ around which our environmental dreams,
aspirations, contestations as well as policies crystallize. The ‘point de
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capiton’, the quilting point through which the signifying chain that weaves
a discursive matrix of meaning and content for the climate change problem-
atic, is CO
2
, the objet petit a that simultaneously expresses our deepest fears
and around which the desire for change, for a better socio-climatic world is
expressed (see Stavrakakis, 1997, 2000; Swyngedouw, forthcoming).
The fetishist disavowal of the multiple and complex relations through
which environmental changes unfold finds its completion in the double
reductionism to this singular socio-chemical component (CO
2
). The reifi-
cation of complex processes to a thing-like object-cause in the form of a
socio-chemical compound around which our environmental desires crys-
tallize is furthermore inscribed with a particular social meaning and
function through its enrolment as commodity in the processes of capital
circulation and market exchange (Bumpus and Liverman, 2008; Liverman,
2009). The commodification of CO
2
primarily via the Kyoto Protocol and
various offsetting schemes in turn, has triggered a rapidly growing deriv-
atives market of futures and options. On the European climate exchange,
for example, trade in CO
2
futures and options grew from zero in 2005 to
463 million tons in June 2009, with prices fluctuating from over 30 euro
to less than 10 euro per ton over this time period.
2
The extraordinary
complexity of state and regulatory procedures forcing the commodification
of CO
2
exemplifies par excellence what Marx once defined as commodity
fetishism:
A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily under-
stood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding
in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. (2004 [1867]: 163)
CO
2
s functioning as a commodity (and financialized asset) is dependent on
its insertion in a complex governance regime organized around a set of
technologies of governance that revolve around reflexive risk-calculation,
self-assessment, interest-negotiation and intermediation, accountancy rules
and accountancy-based disciplining, detailed quantification and bench-
marking of performance (Dean, 1999). The latter is politically choreo-
graphed and instituted by the Kyoto Protocol and related, through
extraordinarily complex, institutional configurations, that is, the techno-
managerial machinery of post-democratic governing.
The above potted summary of the uses of apocalyptic imaginaries,
the science–politics short-circuiting and the privatization of the climate
through the commodification of CO
2
is strictly parallel, I contend, with the
deepening consolidation of a political populism that characterizes the
present post-political condition (Žižek, 2006a). And that is what we shall
turn to next.
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Succumbing to the Populist Temptation
If we do nothing, the consequences for every person on this earth will be
severe and unprecedented – with vast numbers of environmental refugees,
social instability and decimated economies: far worse than anything which
we are seeing today. (Prince Charles, March 2009)
3
Environmental politics and debates over ‘sustainable’ futures in the face of
pending environmental catastrophe signal a range of populist maneuvers
that infuse the post-political post-democratic condition. In this part, we shall
chart the characteristics of populism (see, among others, Canovan, 1999;
2005; Laclau, 2005; Mudde, 2004; Žižek, 2006a) as they are expressed in
mainstream climate concerns. In other words, to the extent that consensual
climate change imaginaries, arguments and policies reflect processes of de-
politicization, the former are sustained by a series of decidedly populist
gestures. Here, I shall summarize the particular ways in which climate
change expresses some of the classic tenets of populism.
First, the climate change conundrum is not only portrayed as global,
but is constituted as a universal humanitarian threat. We are all potential
victims. ‘THE’ Environment and ‘THE’ People, Humanity as a whole in a
material and philosophical manner, are invoked and called into being.
Humanity (as well as large parts of the non-human world) is under threat
from climatic catastrophes. However, the ‘people’ here are not constituted
as heterogeneous political subjects, but as universal victims, suffering from
processes beyond their control. As such, populism cuts across the idiosyn-
crasies of different, heterogeneously constituted, differentially acting, and
often antagonistic human and non-human ‘natures’; it silences ideo logical
and other constitutive social differences and disavows conflicts of interests
by distilling a common threat or challenge to both Nature and Humanity.
As Žižek puts it:
. . . populism occurs when a series of particular ‘democratic’ demands [in this
case, a good environment, a retro-fitted climate, a series of socio-environmen-
tally mitigating actions] is enchained in a series of equivalences, and this
enchainment produces ‘people’ as the universal political subject . . . and all
different particular struggles and antagonisms appear as part of a global
antagonistic struggle between ‘us’ (people) and ‘them’ [in this case ‘it’, i.e.
CO
2
]. (Žižek, 2006a: 553)
Second, this universalizing claim of the pending catastrophe is socially
homogenizing. Although geographical and social differences in terms of
effects are clearly recognized and detailed, these differences are generally
mobilized to further reinforce the global threat that faces the whole of
humankind (see Hulme, 2008). It is this sort of argumentation that led the
latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to
infer that the poor will be hit first and hardest by climate change (IPCC,
2009), which is of course a correct assertion – the poor are by definition ill-
equipped to deal with any sort of change beyond their control – but the
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report continues that, therefore, in the name of the poor, climate change has
to be tackled urgently.
A third characteristic of environmental apocalyptic thought is that it
reinforces the nature–society dichotomy and the causal power of nature to
derail civilizations. It is this process that Neil Smith refers to as ‘nature-
washing’:
Nature-washing is a process by which social transformations of nature are
well enough acknowledged, but in which that socially changed nature
becomes a new super determinant of our social fate. It might well be society’s
fault for changing nature, but it is the consequent power of that nature that
brings on the apocalypse. The causal power of nature is not compromised but
would seem to be augmented by social injections into that nature. (2008: 245)
While the part-anthropogenic process of the accumulation of greenhouse
gases in the atmosphere is readily acknowledged, the related ecological
problems are externalized as are the solutions. CO
2
becomes the fethishized
stand-in for the totality of climate change calamities and, therefore, it
suffices to reverse atmospheric CO
2
build-up to a negotiated idealized point
in history, to return to climatic status quo ex-ante. An extraordinary techno-
managerial apparatus is under way, ranging from new eco-technologies of a
variety of kinds to unruly complex managerial and institutional configura-
tions, with a view to producing a socio-ecological fix to make sure nothing
really changes. Stabilizing the climate seems to be a condition for capital-
ist life as we know it to continue. Moreover, the mobilized mechanisms to
arrive at this allegedly more benign (past) condition are actually those that
produced the problem in the first place (commodification of nature – in this
case CO
2
), thereby radically disavowing the social relations and processes
through which this hybrid socio-natural quasi-object (Latour, 1993;
Swyngedouw, 2006) came into its problematic being. Populist discourse
‘displaces social antagonism and constructs the enemy. In populism, the
enemy is externalized or reified into a positive ontological entity [excessive
CO
2
] (even if this entity is spectral) whose annihilation would restore
balance and justice’ (Žižek, 2006a: 555). The enemy is always externalized
and objectified. Populism’s fundamental fantasy, for Žižek, is that of ‘intrud-
ers’ who have corrupted the system. CO
2
stands here as the classic example
of a fetishized and externalized foe that requires dealing with if sustainable
climate futures are to be attained. Problems therefore are not the result of
the ‘system’, of unevenly distributed power relations, of the networks of
control and influence, of rampant injustices, or of a fatal flaw inscribed in
the system, but are blamed on an outsider (Žižek, 2006a: 555). That is why
the solution can be found in dealing with the ‘pathological’ phenomenon,
the resolution for which resides in the system itself. It is not the system that
is the problem, but its pathological syndrome (for which the cure is internal),
that is posited as ‘excess’. While CO
2
is externalized as the socio-climatic
enemy, a potential cure in the guise of the Kyoto principles is generated
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from within the market functioning of the system itself. The ‘enemy’ is,
therefore, always vague, ambiguous, socially empty or vacuous (like ‘CO
2
’);
the ‘enemy’ is a mere thing, not socially embodied, named and counted.
While a proper analysis and politics would endorse the view that CO
2
-
as-crisis stands as the pathological symptom of the normal, one that
expresses the excesses inscribed in the very normal functioning of the
system (i.e. capitalism), the policy architecture around climate change
insists that this ‘excessive’ state is not inscribed in the functioning of the
system itself, but is an aberration that can be ‘cured’ by mobilizing the very
inner dynamics and logic of the system (privatization of CO
2
, commodifica-
tion and market exchange via carbon and carbon-offset trading).
Fourth, populism is based on a politics of ‘the people know best’
(although the latter category remains often empty, unnamed), supported by
a scientific technocracy assumed to be neutral, and advocates a direct
relationship between people and political participation. It is assumed that
this will lead to a good, if not optimal, solution, a view strangely at odds
with the presumed radical openness, uncertainty and undecidability of the
excessive risks associated with Beck’s or Giddens’ second modernity. The
architecture of populist governing takes the form of stakeholder partici-
pation or forms of participatory governance that operates beyond the state
and permits a form of self-management, self-organization and controlled
self-disciplining (see Dean, 1999; Lemke, 1999), under the aegis of a
non-disputed liberal-capitalist order.
Fifth, populist tactics do not identify a privileged subject of change
(like the proletariat for Marxists, women for feminists or the ‘creative class’
for competitive capitalism), but instead invoke a common condition or
predicament, the need for common humanity-wide action, mutual collabo-
ration and cooperation. There are no internal social tensions or internal
generative conflicts; the ‘people’, in this case global humanity, are called
into being as political subject, thereby disavowing the radical heterogene-
ity and antagonisms that cut through ‘the people’. It is exactly this consti-
tutive split of the people, the recognition of radically differentiated if not
opposed social, political or ecological desires, that calls the proper
democratic political into being.
Sixth, populist demands are always addressed to the elites. Populism
as a project addresses demands to the ruling elites (getting rid of immi-
grants, saving the climate . . .); it is not about replacing the elites, but calling
on the elites to undertake action. The ecological problem is no exception.
It does not invite a transformation of the existing socio-ecological order but
calls on the elites to undertake action such that nothing really has to change,
so that life can basically go on as before. In this sense, environmental
populism is inherently reactionary, a key ideological support structure for
securing the socio-political status quo. It is inherently non-political and
non-partisan. A Gramscian ‘passive revolution’ has taken place over the past
few years, whereby the elites have not only acknowledged the climate
conundrum and, thereby, answered the call of the ‘people’ to take the climate
Swyngedouw – Apocalypse Forever? 223
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seriously, but are moving rapidly to convince the world that, indeed, capi-
talism can not only solve the climate riddle but also that capitalism can
make a new climate by unmaking the one it has co-produced over the past
few hundred years through a series of extraordinary techno-natural and eco-
managerial fixes. Not only do the elites take these particular demands of the
people seriously, it also mobilizes them in ways that serve their purposes.
Seventh, no proper names are assigned to a post-political populist
politics (Badiou, 2005). Post-political populism is associated with a politics
of not naming, in the sense of giving a definite or proper name to its domain
or field of action. Only ‘empty’ signifiers like ‘climate change policy’, ‘bio -
diversity policy’ or a vacuous ‘sustainable policy’ replace the proper names
of politics. These proper names, according to Rancière (1998; see also
Badiou, 2005), are what constitute a genuine democracy, that is, a space
where the unnamed, the uncounted and, consequently, unsymbolized
become named and counted. Consider, for example, how class struggle in
the 19th and 20th century was exactly about naming the proletariat, its
counting, symbolization, narration and consequent entry into the techno-
machinery of the state. In the 20th century, feminist politics became named
through the narration, activism and symbolization of ‘woman’ as a political
category. And, for capitalism, the ‘creative class’ is the revolutionary subject
that sustains its creatively destructive transformations. Climate change has
no positively embodied name or signifier; it does not call a political subject
into being that stands in for the universality of egalitarian democratic
demands. In other words, the future of a globally warmer world has no proper
name. In contrast to other signifiers that signal a positively embodied
content with respect to the future (like socialism, communism, liberalism),
an ecologically and climatologically different future world is only captured
in its negativity; a pure negativity without promises of redemption, without
a positive injunction that ‘transcends’/sublimates negativity and without
proper subject. The realization of this apocalyptic promise is forever post-
poned, the never-land of tomorrow’s unfulfilled and unfulfillable promises.
Yet the gaze on tomorrow permits recasting social, political and other
pressing issues today as future conditions that can be retroactively re-
scripted as a techno-managerial issue.
The final characteristic of populism takes this absence of a positively
embodied signifier further. As particular demands are expressed (get rid of
immigrants, reduce CO
2
) that remain particular, populism forecloses univer-
salization as a positive socio-environmental injunction or project. In other
words, the environmental problem does not posit a positive and named
socio-environmental situation, an embodied vision, a desire that awaits
realization, a fiction to be realized. In that sense, populism does not solve
problems, it moves them elsewhere. Consider, for example, the current
argument over how the nuclear option is again portrayed as a possible and
realistic option to secure a sustainable energy future and as an alternative
to deal both with CO
2
emissions and peak-oil. The redemption of our CO
2
quagmire is found in replacing the socio-ecologically excessive presence of
224 Theory, Culture & Society 27(2–3)
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CO
2
with another socio-natural object, U235/238, and the inevitable
production of all manner of socio-natural transuranic elements. The nuclear
‘fix’ is now increasingly staged (and will undoubtedly be implemented) as
one of the possible remedies to save both climate and capital. It hardly
arouses expectations for a better and ecologically sound society.
We are now in a position to situate this argument within the broader
debate about the changing nature of politics, particularly in the global
North, the tactics and processes of de-politicization, and the emergence of
a post-political and post-democratic frame. This is what we shall turn to
next.
The Post-political and Post-democratic Condition
‘Well, my dear Adeimantus, what is the nature of tyranny? It’s obvious, I
suppose, that it arises out of democracy.’ (Plato, 2003)
Consensually established concerns, like climate change, structured around
ecologies of fear and sustained by a universalizing populist discourse
express and sustain the deepening of a post-political condition. The latter
is, in turn, institutionalized through forms of post-democratic governing.
Post-politics is marked by the predominance of a managerial logic in all
aspects of life, the reduction of the political to administration where
decision-making is increasingly considered to be a question of expert knowl-
edge and not of political position. It is accompanied by the diffusion of
governance into a host of non-state or quasi-state institutional forms and
actors, and fosters consensual understandings of political action and the
particularization of political demands.
Post-politics refers to a politics in which ideological or dissensual
contestation and struggles are replaced by techno-managerial planning,
expert management and administration, ‘whereby the regulation of the
security and welfare of human lives is the primary goal’ (Žižek, 2008).
Whereas the proper democratic political recognizes the constitutive split of
the people, the inherent antagonisms and heterogeneities that cut through
the social, while presuming the equality of each and everyone qua speaking
beings, the post-political disavows these antagonisms by displacing conflict
and disagreement on to the terrain of consensually manageable problems,
expert knowledge and interest intermediation (Swyngedouw, 2009a). ‘Doing
politics’ is reduced to a form of institutionalized social management and to
the mobilization of governmental technologies, where difficulties and
problems are dealt with by administrative and techno-organizational means
(Nancy, cited in Marchart, 2007: 68). In other words, politics as policy-
making (la politique or politics/police) has sutured the space of the politi-
cal as expressions of disagreement/dissensus (le politique or the political)
(Dikeç, 2005). Such a post-political arrangement signals a de-politicized (in
the sense of the disappearance of the democratic agonistic struggle over the
content and direction of socio-ecological life) public space where adminis-
trative governance defines the zero-level of politics (see Marquand, 2004;
Swyngedouw – Apocalypse Forever? 225
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Swyngedouw, 2009b). Proper political choice as the agonistic confrontation
of competing visions of a different socio-ecological order is foreclosed as
the space of the political, or sutured by totalizing threats that permit only
one choice or direction, one that can be ‘managed’ through dialogical
consensual practices (Mouffe, 2005).
Post-politics rejects ideological divisions and the explicit universal-
ization of particular political demands (Žižek, 1999: 198). Post-politics is
thus about the administration (policing) of social, economic, ecological or
other issues, and it remains, of course, fully within the realm of the possible,
of existing social relations, which are ‘the partition of the sensible’
(Rancière, 2001). ‘The ultimate sign of post-politics in all Western coun-
tries’, Žižek (2002: 303) argues, ‘is the growth of a managerial approach to
government: government is reconceived as a managerial function, deprived
of its proper political dimension.’
In post-politics, the conflict of global ideological visions embodied in
different parties which compete for power is replaced by the collaboration of
enlightened technocrats (economists, public opinion specialists . . .) and
liberal multiculturalists; via the process of negotiation of interests, a compro-
mise is reached in the guise of a more or less universal consensus. Post-
politics thus emphasizes the need to leave old ideological visions behind and
confront new issues, armed with the necessary expert knowledge and free
deliberation that takes people’s concrete needs and demands into account.
(Žižek, 1999: 198)
The political (the space of litigation in which the excluded can protest the
wrong/injustice done to them) [is] foreclosed.... It is crucial to perceive . . .
the post-political suspension of the political in the reduction of the state to
a mere police agent servicing the (consensually established) needs of
market forces and multiculturalist tolerant humanitarianism. (Žižek,
1998: 997)
Post-politics refuses politicization in the classical Greek sense, that is, as
the metaphorical universalization of particular demands, which aims at
‘more’ than the negotiation of interests. Politics becomes something one can
do without making decisions that divide and separate (Thomson, 2003).
Difficulties and problems, which are generally staged and accepted as
problematic, have to be dealt with by means of compromise and the produc-
tion of consensus. The key feature of consensus is ‘the annulment of
dissensus . . . the “end of politics”’ (Rancière, 2001: §32). Of course, this
post- political world eludes choice and freedom (other than those tolerated
by the consensus) and effaces the properly political from the spaces of
public encounter. For Rancière (1998), this disavowal of the political and
the staging of politics as a form of consensual management of the givens
of the situation is one of the tactics through which spaces of conflict and
antagonism are smoothed over and displaced.
This ‘retreat of the political’ (Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, 1997) and
its replacement by consensual policing arrangements is organized through
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post-democratic institutions of governance, like the Kyoto Protocol and
other public–private bodies that increasingly replace the political institu-
tions of government (see Crouch, 2004). Post-democratic institutional
arrangements are the performative expression of a post-political condition.
For Rancière (1998: 102): ‘Postdemocracy is . . . a democracy that has
eliminated the appearance, the miscount, and dispute of the people and is
thereby reducible to the sole interplay of state mechanisms and combina-
tions of social energies and interests.’ Urbaniti defines these post-
democratic institutions of ‘governance-beyond-the-state’ as follows:
Governance entails an explicit reference to ‘mechanisms’ or ‘organized’ and
‘coordinated activities’ appropriate to the solution of some specific problems.
Unlike government, governance refers to ‘policies’ rather than ‘politics’....
Its recipients are not ‘the people’ as collective political subject, but ‘the
population’ that can be affected by global issues such as the environment,
migration, or the use of natural resources. (Urbinati, 2003: 80)
This post-democratic constitution reconfigures the act of governing to a
stakeholder-based arrangement of multi-scalar governance in which the
traditional state operates institutionally together with experts, NGOs and
other ‘responsible’ partners (while ‘irresponsible’ partners are excluded).
They operate with a generally accepted consensus of a global and largely
(neo)liberal capitalism, the right of individual choice, an eco logical aware-
ness and the necessity to continue this, to sustain the state of the situation.
Discussion and dispute are tolerated, even encouraged, in so far as the
general frame is not contested.
Not only are radical dissent, critique and fundamental conflict being
evacuated from the political arena (and relegated to the terrain of ‘extra-
political’ and unauthorized violence), but also the parameters of democratic
governing itself are being shifted, announcing new forms of governmental-
ity, in which traditional disciplinary society is transfigured into a society of
control through democratically disembedded networks (like ‘the Kyoto
Protocol’; ‘the Dublin Statement’, the ‘Rio Summit’, etc. . . .).
Conclusion: Re-thinking the Political Environment
Against thoughts of the end and catastrophe, I believe it is possible and
necessary to oppose a thought of political precariousness. (Rancière,
2004: 8)
We have argued that the particular framing of climate change and its
associated populist politics as outlined above forecloses (or at least attempts
to do so) politicization and evacuates dissent through the formation of a
particular regime of environmental governance that revolves around consen-
sus, agreement, participatory negotiation of different interests and techno-
cratic expert management in the context of a non-disputed management of
market-based socio-economic organization. Even a cursory analysis of
‘green politics’, whether from the perspective of environmental movements
Swyngedouw – Apocalypse Forever? 227
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(like Greenpeace) or environmental parties (the German Greens are a classic
case), over the past few decades would signal their rapid transformation from
engaging in a politics of contestation, organized action, radical disagree-
ment and developing visionary alternatives to their integration into stake-
holder-based negotiation arrangements aimed at delivering a negotiated
policy.
A consensual post-politics emerges here, one that either eliminates
fundamental conflict or elevates it to antithetical ultra-politics. The consen-
sual times we are currently living in have thus eliminated a genuine polit-
ical space of disagreement. These post-political climate change policies rest
on the following foundations. First, the social and ecological problems
caused by modernity/capitalism are external side-effects; they are not an
inherent and integral part of the relations of liberal politics and capitalist
economies. Second, a strictly populist politics emerges here; one that
elevates the interest of an imaginary ‘the People’, Nature, or ‘the environ-
ment’ to the level of the universal, rather than opening spaces that permit
the universalization of the claims of particular socio-natures, environments,
or social groups or classes. Third, these side-effects are constituted as
global, universal and threatening. Fourth, the ‘enemy’ or the target of
concern is continuously externalized and becomes socially disembodied, is
always vague, ambiguous, unnamed and uncounted, and ultimately empty.
Fifth, the target of concern can be managed through a consensual dia logical
politics whereby demands become depoliticized and politics naturalized
within a given socio-ecological order for which there is ostensibly no real
alternative (Swyngedouw, 2007).
The post-political environmental consensus, therefore, is one that is
radically reactionary, one that forestalls the articulation of divergent,
conflicting and alternative trajectories of future socio-environmental possi-
bilities and of human–human and human–nature articulations and assem-
blages. It holds on to a harmonious view of Nature that can be recaptured
while reproducing, if not solidifying, a liberal-capitalist order for which
there seems to be no alternative. Much of the sustainability argument has
evacuated the politics of the possible, the radical contestation of alternative
future socio-environmental possibilities and socio-natural arrangements,
and has silenced the antagonisms and conflicts that are constitutive of our
socio-natural orders by externalizing conflict. It is inherently reactionary.
As Badiou (2005) argues, ‘proper’ politics must revolve around the construc-
tion of great new fictions that create real possibilities for constructing
different socio-environmental futures. To the extent that the current post-
political condition that combines apocalyptic environmental visions with a
hegemonic neoliberal view of social ordering constitutes one particular
fiction (one that in fact forecloses dissent, conflict and the possibility of a
different future), there is an urgent need for different stories and fictions
that can be mobilized for realization (Brand et al., 2009). This requires fore-
grounding and naming different socio-environmental futures and recogniz-
ing conflict, difference and struggle over the naming and trajectories of these
228 Theory, Culture & Society 27(2–3)
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futures. Socio-environmental conflict, therefore, should not be subsumed
under the homogenizing mantle of a populist environmentalist-sustainabil-
ity discourse, but should be legitimized as constitutive of a democratic order.
This, of course, turns the climate question into a question of democracy and
its meaning. It asserts the horizon of a recuperated democracy as the terrain
(space) for expressing conflict, for nurturing agonistic debate and disagree-
ment, and, most importantly, for the naming of different possible socio-
environmental futures.
Notes
1. Of course, the politics of climate science itself should not be ignored, but this
is beyond the scope of the present article. For a discussion of the politics of climate
science, see Demeritt (2001).
2. See URL (consulted July 2009): www.ecx.eu
3. Speech by HRH the Prince of Wales at La Moneda Palace, Santiago, Chile,
9 March 2009; URL (consulted January 2010): http://www.princeofwales.gov.uk/
speechesandarticles/a_speech_by_hrh_the_prince_of_wales_at_la_moneda_palace_
sant_1398538628.html
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Erik Swyngedouw is Professor of Human Geography at the University of
Manchester. He recently published Social Power and the Urbanization of
Water: Flows of Power (Oxford University Press) and co-edited In the Nature
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... The foreclosure of diverse options and the disregard for democratic deliberation in sustainability practice is well-documented [8,14,73,96]. All too often sustainability programs with the best intentions have, in either their urgency and/or lack of attention, resulted in exclusion, the reproduction of disadvantage, or novel societal rifts. ...
... The Anthropocene and concomitant climate crisis is understood as an invitation for humanity to rethink and reflect different understandings about how to live sustainably and in harmony on this Earth [14]. Yet, as post-political authors argue, it appears that instead of a wide and wild array of proposals for living with nature(s), heterogenous visions are collapsed into a single proposal [9,96]. Corvellec, Böhm, Stowell, and Valenzuela make this point explicit within the context of circular economies, stating that despite wide-ranging ambiguity around what the circular economy is, "influential economic and political actors have been allowed to hegemonize the CE discourse, [resulting in] the narrowing down of latent possibilities" [20,97]. ...
... Corvellec, Böhm, Stowell, and Valenzuela make this point explicit within the context of circular economies, stating that despite wide-ranging ambiguity around what the circular economy is, "influential economic and political actors have been allowed to hegemonize the CE discourse, [resulting in] the narrowing down of latent possibilities" [20,97]. Such depoliticization of Anthropocene politics is an emptying out of the political from decision-making spaces, which creates conditions without the possibility for disagreement and non-consensus [96]. In these post-political approaches to contemporary grand challenges, the status quo is often "sustained" and entrenched in a single, hegemonic vision of sustainable futures [9,96]-The Circular Economy as opposed to multiple circular economies. ...
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Amid the growth of circular economy research, policy, and practice, there are increasingly loud calls for a unified and singular definition of circularity. This unity is needed, proponents argue, to enable swift action in the face of climate and environmental crises. Our work interrogates the ideal of convergence around the circular economy. We ask whether circularity must be singular and uniform in order to be effective. Based on convergence science research and social theory rooted in ideas of divergence, our paper draws on observations of a convergence science workshop, focus groups, interviews, and questionnaires with US-based circular economy professionals to explore shared and divergent understandings and practices of circularity. We find that even among a relatively homogeneous group of research participants (in terms of race, class, and education), there is significant divergence in terms of both practices and perceptions of circular economy principles. We focus in this paper on how research participants understand innovation in the circular economy as just one potential illustration of divergent circularity. Our research contributes to an understanding of circular economy knowledge politics, illuminating how circularity is contested even among those who advocate most strongly for its implementation. We ultimately find opportunity and promise precisely in the spaces of contestation, and see divergence as a way to hold space for multiple ways of being and relating to economies, materials, and beings. These more inclusive pathways, we argue, may be necessary to ensure just and effective transitions to more circular economic forms.
... It has also been suggested that collaborative governance tends to maintain the status quo, hindering the radical change that is required (Blühdorn & Deflorian, 2019), while increased citizen involvement can be instrumentalised by powerful interests (Boezeman et al., 2014). It has also been argued that involvement of wide range of stakeholders in decision-making can undermine legitimacy and accountability (Hendriks & Boswell, 2018), and includes a risk of exclusion of diverse views while aiming for consensus (Carvalho et al., 2019;Gutmann & Thompson, 2018), especially with challenges underpinned by a crisis (Määttä, 2021b;Swyngedouw, 2010a). This has resulted in some interest in more authoritative, rather than democratic, approaches (Beeson, 2010). ...
... The goal of a just transition and a more involved public resonates with debates around consensus and democracy (McIlroy et al., 2021;Mouffe, 1993bMouffe, , 1999Swyngedouw, 2009Swyngedouw, , 2010cSwyngedouw, , 2010aWilson & Swyngedouw, 2015). The governance of the climate change has been described as post-political with its aim for consensus and lack of space for disagreement and conflict (Swyngedouw, 2009(Swyngedouw, , 2010a. ...
... The goal of a just transition and a more involved public resonates with debates around consensus and democracy (McIlroy et al., 2021;Mouffe, 1993bMouffe, , 1999Swyngedouw, 2009Swyngedouw, , 2010cSwyngedouw, , 2010aWilson & Swyngedouw, 2015). The governance of the climate change has been described as post-political with its aim for consensus and lack of space for disagreement and conflict (Swyngedouw, 2009(Swyngedouw, , 2010a. ...
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The energy system transition requires a radical transformation of the energy system. These changes reach out to the everyday lives of individuals making them key stakeholders in the transition. As the energy transition is not possible without the involvement of the public, questions over who participates (or does not, or cannot) and who benefits from the transition are not just moral considerations but also questions over the effectiveness of the transition. The main aim of this research is to evaluate emerging governance arrangements that facilitate public involvement in the energy transition. It examines key discourses in two case study countries (Scotland and Ireland) and analyses these using a governmentality approach. This facilitates the use of concepts such as problematisation, technologies and rationalities, which are used to investigate how varying stakeholders in Ireland and Scotland discuss the role of the public in the energy system. The data for this research consists of interviews with key stakeholders, policy documents, policy consultation submissions, public event recordings, and reports by key stakeholders. Analysing how public involvement in its many forms is problematised, what strategies are adopted, and what moral elaborations guide this gives insights into how the public is governed and what challenges and opportunities are connected to this. This resulted in several contributions. The research contributes to the understanding of the role of the public as involvement and advances the novel theoretical framing of a Whole-of-Society Approach. To analyse the connections between varying perspectives, another governmentality analytical tool, interplay, is introduced. The research also used novel data collection methods and an adaptive research approach. Lastly, the analysis of the interplay between perspectives highlights conflicts between how the public is imagined and the adopted practices, indicating a need to reconsider the prevalent rationalities connected to the involvement of the public in the energy transition.
... If future hopes, particularly as an antidote to fearful imaginaries, coalesce around a desire to maintain normality, recover, or be 'resilient' in the face of disruption, this plurality may be stifled. As Swyngedouw (2010) discusses in relation to climate change, fear can be used to craft depoliticized imaginaries of possible futures that rely heavily on managerial and technocratic solutions. As such, fear can depoliticise the scope of hope as well as the processes by which it is organised; to foreclose rather than open spaces in which different visions for the future can be imagined (Kenis & Mathijs, 2014;Swyngedouw, 2010). ...
... As Swyngedouw (2010) discusses in relation to climate change, fear can be used to craft depoliticized imaginaries of possible futures that rely heavily on managerial and technocratic solutions. As such, fear can depoliticise the scope of hope as well as the processes by which it is organised; to foreclose rather than open spaces in which different visions for the future can be imagined (Kenis & Mathijs, 2014;Swyngedouw, 2010). ...
... While hope can be positioned as a type of space-time relation with significant disruptive potential, by linking the taking place of hope with its organisation we reveal how this potentiality is bounded both by the technical practices of the processual world, national scale politics, and those expert voices who are given significant tasks and power during times of crisis. We also see how elements of depoliticisation were built into the decision-making process, constraining the potential for radically different futures and acting to reinforce business-as-usual by working at the edges of the status quo (Swyngedouw, 2010;Kenis & Mathijs, 2014). This research, therefore, echoes issues raised by scholars in planning and geography who have emphasized the concerns with processural and techno-managerial politics (Allmendinger & Haughton, 2012;Legacy, 2016;Swyngedouw, 2018). ...
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Rapid economic stimulus in response to COVID-19, typically based on ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure, has opened up new political spaces of hope to ‘Build Back Better’ and transform economies. This research seeks to link the public ‘taking place’ of hope, representing the aspirations of various groups for investment or change stimulated by this fund, with the less visible ways governments ‘organise’ hope, the expert, technical processes and rationalities that help determine which hopes become realised and why. Using the Aotearoa New Zealand ‘shovel-ready’ fund as a case study, and drawing upon press releases, media, Official Information requests, and Cabinet documents, we first provide a discourse analysis of the various government and non-government hopes that became attached to this stimulus. We then trace how these became translated into project proposals, before unpacking and analysing the urgent processes developed to assist political decision makers. While crises and hope can be positioned as having significant disruptive potential, we reveal how this was stifled by the technical processes and practices of the processual world enacted at the national scale, which was given significant power. Further, although public discourses reflected a plurality of multi-scalar and temporal hopes for investment, in practice the less visible organisation privileged a much more business-as-usual approach. Consequently, any government aspirations for transformation were rendered less likely due to the processes they themselves established. Overall, we emphasise the need for those committed to reform to bring technical processes and rational practices to greater prominence in order to reveal and challenge their power.
... Uniting a diverse set of opinions is the idea that "contemporary forms of depoliticization are characterized by the erosion of democracy and the weakening of the public sphere, as consensual mode of governance has colonized, if not sutured, political space"(Wilson and Swyngedouw 2014a, p. 5). This emerging literature across the social sciences conceptualizes the processes as 'post-politics', 'post-political' and 'post-democratic'(Crouch 2004;Mouffe 2005;Swyngedouw 2010; O'Callaghan 2019). An important debate within this highly contested sphere concerns the nature of the post-political itself: whether it is a "condition" of contemporary society or a "contingent political strategy" imposed upon it to shrink political agency(Beveridge and Koch 2017, p. 39). ...
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This study rests at the intersection of technopolitics, translocal networks and political change. The overall aim of the thesis is to understand, and in turn, influence, the way technology interacts with political transformation. It responds to the fact that social science has thus far neglected to adequately account for and analyze how emerging technologies like blockchain and civic tech influence the way politics is practiced. The main research question guiding the study is how does the design, implementation and use of technopolitical innovations influence the practice of politics. The thesis foregrounds the idea that technopolitical experiments personify a ‘prefigurative politics by design’ i.e. they embody the politics and power structures they want to enable in society. Conducted as part of the EU-funded SUSPLACE project that explores the transformative capacity of sustainable place-shaping practices, the research was predominantly inspired by a hybrid digital ethnography methodology. The thesis confines its focus to three empirical clusters: technopolitical blockchain projects, government-led blockchain projects and place-based civic engagement technologies. The study delineates how differing politico-social imaginaries play a role in the design and implementation of technopolitical projects; addresses contemporary post-political phenomena such as the depoliticization of agency; and identifies the activation of a place-based geography of political action through digitally-mediated municipal networks. It articulates the language and frameworks necessary to analyze these present-day challenges, while simultaneously developing approaches that can be exported to different domains of political activism. Technology is not neutral; but neither are its designers and users. The thesis finds that it is through considerable, deliberate efforts, in conjunction with individual and collective choices, that technopolitical innovations can reframe our socio-economic and political realities. The study demonstrates the emphatic and urgent need for researchers, practitioners, politicians and citizens to collaboratively work on redrawing boundaries of access, empowering the citizenry, creating new forms of organization and re-politicizing the economy. It outlines a transdisciplinary research and practice agenda that aims at not only (de)coding the existing technopolitical innovations, but also (re)coding them to create a more equitable system of politics. The thesis concludes that since coding affordances and constraints in a technopolitical system is shown to regulate political agency and even influence the behavior of citizens, we must devise value-driven technology that incentivizes creating a more equitable political system.
... Here, politics are understood as internal affairs of the state or opposition to the regime, as well as the transformational responses to certain policies and practices of the state (Wells-Dang, 2012: 43). To politicise the environment is thus to amplify the contentious dimensions of environmental issues in combination with the alignment of attitudes towards such issues with existing norms and ideologies (Pepermans and Maeseele, 2016;Swyngedouw, 2010a). Our contribution here is threefold. ...
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This paper aims to explore how under authoritarian regimes, undergoing reform processes, divergent forms of environmental activism may emerge. Two severe cases of environmental degradation serve as our starting points: the marine disaster in the central coast of Vietnam in 2016 and the Mekong Delta's ongoing environmental degradation. While the former offers a case of rural grievances over mass fish death in Central Vietnam triggering protests on a national scale, the latter presents a continuum of environmental changes leading to serious impacts on deltaic livelihoods, albeit with no observable efforts of activism compared to the situation in other countries along the Mekong Delta. Drawing from in-depth interviews and participant observation with NGO workers in Vietnam who focus on environment and community development, we unravel the conditions, methods and rationalities behind their engagement (or lack thereof) with environmental activism in each case. We argue that the difference between the cases can be explained by tracing the process of politicising environmental grievances, taking into consideration culinary nationalism, anti-China nationalism and political opportunities under authoritarianism. Moving beyond current literature on activism under authoritarian regimes which relies mainly on institutional and/or social network approaches, our analysis helps further shed light on how contemporary environmental activism is mobilised in Vietnam from a geographically and politically grounded as well as culturally embedded position.
... Here, the populist argument, in addition to maintaining its base skeleton, extends to include a particular imaginary of what Nature is or should be (Stavrakakis 1997(Stavrakakis , Žižek 2011. I have in a series of papers explored and substantiated the making of a post-political climate populism and a deepening post-democratic institutional configuration, and its consequences (Swyngedouw 2010(Swyngedouw , 2018. ...
... On the contrary, the problem is that people in general know this situation well, but their social relations make them act as if they do not know (Žižek, 2009: 30). Contemporary discrepancy between public awareness of global warming and the social practices intensifying the same is another example of such fetishist disavowal (Žižek, 1991: 34ff;Swyngedouw, 2010;Fletcher, 2018). In such cases, the political role of belief as on par with knowledge becomes clear if belief is understood as mainly found not in personal conviction but in jogtrot actions. ...
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This article aims to contribute to the emerging field of psychoanalytic geopolitics by introducing a conceptualization of a geopolitics of ideological transference of political knowledge and belief. This is done through an extensive theoretical application of the Lacanian-Žižekian concepts of the "subject supposed to know," "subject supposed to believe," and "subject supposed to enjoy" on an empirical case study. The case concerns the discourse, ideology, and politics of the Swedish state hegemony regarding its handling of the territorial presence of impoverished and excluded EU citizens with Romanian/Bulgarian passport and Roma heritage-popularly called "the beggars"-with a focus on the crisis-laden year of 2015. The government, state, and the media elevated key actors into the ideological status of subjects supposed to know how to end the "beggars'" presence in Sweden in a rational and yet caring way, thus enabling the continuous belief in the Swedish ideology of moral exceptionalism although the practical outcomes effectively hindered the EU citizens from obtaining better life conditions. It is argued that a geopolitics of transference through the application of said concepts enable us to further understand how political actors can simultaneously act cynical and idealist, which both illuminates and complicates notions of what knowledges and beliefs inform politics and political geographies in general.
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In the current climate crisis, we count more than ever on art and literature.¹ Theorists and critics repeatedly emphasize the role of literature and imagination in overcoming an impasse in climate change communication through science and data.² In genres like speculative fiction and science fiction, or, for convenience, the umbrella genre/category of climate fiction, writers already narrativize climate change and speculate on its futures.³ Yet, there is much critique and contestation on how climate fiction may properly respond to the climate crisis, what affects it may create, and whether it could move the public to act. Adam Trexler and Adeline Johns-Putra have done extensive research on climate change representation in contemporary culture. One major frame for representing climate change in their surveys is, expectedly, a future dystopia or apocalypse; Johns–Putra writes: “Overwhelmingly, climate change appears in novels as part of a futuristic dystopian and/or postapocalyptic setting” (269)....
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This thesis critically examines the impact of climate change on the heritage work of Historic England (HE) and the Riksantikvarieämbetet (‘Swedish National Heritage Board’ – RAÄ). The research is based on the understanding of climate change as a hyperobject (Morton, 2013), a term coined to describe the ways in which climate change does not only operate through its physical impact but also shifts social and material relations between humans, nonhumans and inanimate agents. By applying an ethnographic methodology, this thesis critically reflects on the responses of HE and the RAÄ to the climate crisis by questioning what understandings of climate change and heritage inform these and, subsequently, what this means for climate action and the creation of (alternative) futures. The research develops around three themes representing both organisations' primary climate change engagements: adaptation, mitigation, and participation. The thesis argues that the first two responses are informed by understanding climate change as an environmental impact and a carbon problem. The third theme considers how both organisations aim to be included in the climate change discourse as it takes place in other sectors, particularly in the natural environment sector and how they attempt to challenge these existing nature/culture dichotomies. However, I will argue that they do not overcome this dualism on the ontological level. Throughout, it argues that both organisations uphold an anthropocentric approach that aims to demonstrate heritage's relevance and positive impact by emphasising the benefits of its conservation to its human custodians, while climate change remains framed as an external impact. The latter prevents a critical reflection of the existing heritage discourse, the socio-environmental and political drivers of the climate crisis and the role heritage plays in these. Therefore, in conclusion, this thesis briefly reflects on what role heritage could play in futures that challenge the current status quo.
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Urban economic development is one of the primary engines of hazard exposure and differential social vulnerability, nevertheless, the drivers of urban development are rarely explicitly tackled in work on climate adaptation or resilience governance. When the imperative of urban economic and spatial growth is taken as a given, the mechanisms that perpetuate it remain unexplored and unquestioned. Lack of attention to such mechanisms, and specifically the politics of urban land use, can lead to ineffective planning and maladaptation. In this review, we explore the intersection of scholarship on urban climate adaptation governance and the political economy of urban development to identify the specific contemporary mechanisms that perpetuate uneven patterns of urban vulnerability and undermine adaptation planning. We are guided by three questions: What are the mechanisms that urban managers employ to assign rights and responsibilities to land, and thus allocate spatial exposure to risk? How is land implicated in cities’ efforts to finance themselves and their activities, and what are the implications for adaptation? What mechanisms enable urban actors to protect themselves from risk and respond to uncertainty? We emphasize the need to place urban climate governance within the broader political dynamics of urban development for more effective, equitable and ultimately sustainable vulnerability interventions. We find that instruments of urban development are often supporting the prioritization of economic rewards over equitable and just distribution of risk and rights to adaptation benefits. We conclude by highlighting the “uncomfortable knowledge” that if sustainable adaptation is to be achieved, the mechanisms of urban development and associated actors that shape, steer and utilize these instruments for a variety of means and goals, must be made visible and addressed.
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This article analyses the notion of the 'the people' in contemporary political theory. It explains that the people's authority is considered to confer legitimacy upon constitutions, new regimes, and changes to the borders of states. It discusses the attribution of ultimate political authority to the people and investigates how the people came to have an authoritative status. It also analyses whether the repository of the ultimate political authority is a collective entity, a collection of individuals, or both.
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Since September 11th, we frequently hear that political differences should be put aside: the real struggle is between good and evil. What does this mean for political and social life? Is there a ‘Third Way’ beyond left and right, and if so, should we fear or welcome it?
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This is a wide-ranging overview of the emergence of post-foundationalism and a survey of the work of its key contemporary exponents.