When my partner got pregnant, I didn’t really think that just a few months later, I’d be stockpiling food and essentials. But back in November, when we found out, I guess I still figured that our government (we live in the UK) would do a deal with the European Union to manage how trade etc. is going to work after the country is scheduled to leave it at the end of March; or at least if not, then it would have the common courtesy to call the whole Brexit experiment off and collapse.
That assumption proved to be wildly optimistic: the government has come no closer to agreeing any sort of deal, quite the opposite — it’s now passed legislation that obliges it to demand impossible things from the European Union, and is getting sued by one of its own peers. Already almost all the options to force Theresa May and her gang of ghoulish stooges out of office have been exhausted, so here I am.
We live in weird, wild times: In 2016, the public chose what was supposed to be the joke option in a referendum, and now from March 30 onwards the country will, completely voluntarily, be experiencing major shortages of food and medicine, with towers of unprocessable garbage piling up on the outskirts of our towns.
And so, with the government pursuing a course of action which is actively hostile to me and my gestating family, I’ve done what any rational person in my situation would do: I’ve cleared as much space in our flat as we can find, and I’ve begun to fill it with canned beans, dried chickpeas, jars of vegetables preserved in oil, bags of pasta, peanut butter, flour, oats, detergent, toilet paper. Next on the list is baby formula and diapers. Then there’s the cat — do I need to get litter? If everything goes to shit, can I just line the box where she shits with soil? (Would that even work? Can I really just source the stuff my cat needs to poop from basically any garden? Is the whole kitty litter business built on a lie?). I’m not completely sure what my partner makes of all this. On one level she finds it kind of funny, in a “nice tinfoil hat honey” sort of way. But I also think she finds it quite charming, knowing that, with a difficult situation looming, my instinct is to go full Apocalypse Dad.
A few weeks ago I read a new book by Peter Fleming called The Worst Is Yet To Come. Billed as a “post-capitalist survival guide,” the book’s most interesting suggestion is that, despite what you might think, capitalism is already basically dead. The problem is that we’re transitioning, not to something better (with the inexorable logic of, for instance, Marx’s dialectic) — but to something worse. “The post-capitalist future we should prepare for,” Fleming writes, “will be no classless utopia. The worst features of capitalism will be amplified and applied reductio ad absurdum, coalescing around the return of preindustrial norms of authority and an incredible polarisation of wealth.”
Philosophically, this is underpinned by a riff on the concept of hauntology, associated first with Jacques Derrida and later Mark Fisher. To understand what “hauntology” means, first picture the word “ontology” — the philosophical study of being. Now imagine the word “ontology” being said in a sort of hoity-toity French accent. The word “hauntology”, then, is a pun on ontology — it is the study of how what is, is disrupted, as a ghost would, by what is not.
Fleming’s most interesting suggestion is that, despite what you might think, capitalism is already basically dead.
According to Fleming, there are “three types of haunting” which are “afflicting the neo-industrial complex.” The first is a sort of “traditional visitation,” as when “an appalling crime has been committed and the victim returns in ghostly form to balance the books and put matters right.” The capitalist world has been built on the suffering and exploitation of oppressed peoples. Even at the moments in history during which capitalism has seemed most triumphant (as it was at the post-Soviet “End of History,” when Derrida wrote Spectres of Marx, the book in which the concept was originated), it has necessarily been haunted by this fact: you cannot build an economic order on genocide and simply expect everyone to forget about it. Such will have real-world effects: “Just as Hamlet believed his time was ‘out of joint’ given his father’s callous murder, capitalism too cannot relax in its own home.” It will be haunted by demands for justice, that it makes amends, make its bad world right.
The second type of haunting is particularly associated with Fisher, in his book Ghosts of My Life. In this mode, what we are haunted by is not the spectres of crimes our ruling class has committed, but of lost futures that never were; better worlds which never came to pass. For Fisher, this is particularly true of the experiments in democratic socialism and libertarian communism which were beginning to be put into practice by the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the promise of which was snuffed out by an insurgent neoliberalism.
One particularly clear example can be found in former Chilean President Salvador Allende’s reign, during which a pioneering democratic socialism was overthrown by Augusto Pinochet’s CIA-backed coup; Chile then became a sort of laboratory for neoliberal economics under Pinochet. The promise of these old movements can be a spur to action in our present world: their memory tells us that things could have been different, that they could have turned out better. Learning from their failures can provide us with a sort of hope.
But we might not just be haunted by the spectres of better worlds. According to Fleming we are also haunted, in a temporal register analogous to that of Bruce Willis in Twelve Monkeys being haunted by memories of his own death, by “misfutures... the dystopic and grisly futures that have not yet materialized... but threaten to do so if corrective action isn’t taken soon.” No Deal Brexit might be one such looming misfuture, at least for people like me who are stupid enough to live over here; another example would be the various worst-case climate change scenarios that writers such as New York Magazine’s David Wallace-Wells have articulated with alarming verve.
According to Fleming, these misfutures should also spur us to action. But what action they should spur us to exactly is left a bit unclear. He talks, somewhat vaguely, of a “speculative negativity” — “thinking the unthinkable and imagining the unimaginable” — as well as a “revolutionary pessimism” in which we “(anticipate) the nastiest surprises that a derailed civilization has to offer, yet (refuse) the cult of futility.” This, Fleming argues, would be preferable to a Pollyannaish “radical optimism,” which leaves us vulnerable to the various disasters by which we are constantly battered.
Survival is conservative by nature: however bad the world might be, my best chances of surviving in it are by learning and respecting its rules.
Perhaps in a practical sense all this really means is: stockpiling is a really good idea. My Apocalypse Dadness can be fully justified philosophically. By stockpiling food and essentials, I am doing what I can to anticipate the worst, doing what I can to make it possible for me — and the two people I love the most — not to simply roll over and die in the face of it.
But responding to the possibility of the worst, by pursuing mere survival, seems a bit limited — even to the point of being paradoxical. Survival is conservative by nature: however bad the world might be, my best chances of surviving in it are by learning and respecting its rules. My best hopes at riding out any given disaster are if things, as far as possible, continue to follow laws and norms I already understand. And yet, the possibility of disaster is inherent to the world as it presently exists, as long as the world remains the same, that possibility will be there. In a way, then, the best thing to do would be to throw caution to the wind, to forget more survival and embrace — as far as possible — radical change. Only then might we achieve a world in which we are genuinely safe, without ever needing to rely on mere survivalism again.
This paradox is inherent to the idea of the Apocalypse in general. The Apocalypse means the end of all things. Despite that, many people throughout history have rushed to embrace it. A total disaster can seem like it’s not only a disaster, it can also seem to have a cleansing power, to be the herald of a new age. Once the floods have come, and washed all the bad people, all their evil and decadence away, society can be built anew. There might well be a lot of suffering but, after that, finally, we’ll get it right.
This is a dangerous delusion, the sort of thing people believe before they start agitating for a nuclear war, but it nevertheless tells us something important — that the worst sort of disaster would be not only a disaster. It would be a disaster that brings with it all sorts of horrible effects, only for nothing to change. And in a way: isn’t our biggest problem precisely that all of our disasters are like this nowadays?
The 2007 financial crisis destroyed (and continues to handicap ) many people’s livelihoods, but most of the action our governments took was to bail out the institutions most responsible, effectively to impose a zombie neoliberalism, characterised by austerity, precarity, and spiralling inequality.
Every season, some fresh natural disaster burns or drowns or freezes one or other of our cities. People die, or are made homeless, and we tweet about climate change, but no one actually stops burning any fossil fuels.
My biggest fear when it comes to Brexit is that we’ll leave without a deal, everything will be terrible for a while, there will be massive job losses, shortages of food and medicine, tens of thousands of EU migrants will be forced to uproot their lives and leave the country... and then, after all that, nothing will change. In the next election the Tories will win again, and they’ll just carry on ruining the country in exactly the same way as before. The rich will get richer, the poor will get sicker and die, the middle classes will get even more isolated and racist. This is where we could end up, if we don’t embrace change, embrace the future, embrace hope.
I still think it makes sense to stockpile stuff, but contra Fleming, this doesn’t mean choosing pessimism over optimism. Pessimism can never be enough by itself — the right sort of fear needs hope to animate it. The worst can only happen if we fail to imagine the better.