Kim Stanley Robinson recently wrote a powerful piece for The New Yorker describing history as what Raymond Williams calls a “structure of feeling.” Not only do historical moments shape how human beings think, but the very horizon of our emotional lives are shaped and structured by what seems possible or impossible in a given moment. Describing our inability to confront climate change, he says that despite wrecking the Earth, “we’ve been acting as though it were 2000, or 1990 — as though the neoliberal arrangements built back then still made sense.” Indeed, we’ve built a lot of wealth by extracting resources from the earth and from people who either work for slave wages or are actually slaves. But the immediate sense of threat dramatically shifted this structure, enacting new models of feeling for us to follow: “[i]t’s not that the coronavirus is a dress rehearsal – it’s too deadly for that. But it is the first of many calamities that will likely unfold throughout this century. Now, when they come, we’ll be familiar with how they feel.”
Robinson’s model of human consciousness here is very different from the rational, free individual touted as the foundation of democratic society by many Enlightenment philosophers. It is closer to what Benedict Spinoza described in his work on The Ethics. “Most people seem to believe that they are free,” Spinoza argues in Book 3, “insofar as they may obey their lusts, and that they cede their rights, in so far as they are bound to live according to the commandments of divine law” (Prop. 39). Of course, Spinoza is talking about religious law here, but I think the idea can be extracted to some of the difficulties we face today. I wrote once before about this particular quote from Spinoza, specifically in the aftermath of the 2016 election. There, I said “[w]e live in the middle of things, and instead of understanding the complexity of our situation, most people are content to live with a simplistic understanding of morality and, in the process, condemn everyone else who thinks differently.” Of course, that’s part of what Spinoza argues; on the other hand, he’s also suggesting that many people identify with our desire and passion as part of our deepest self. Yet anyone who has studied Marxism for any amount of time will realize how many of our desires are constructed by capitalists seeking profit and manipulated by tyrants seeking more political power. As Steven Nadler writes in a brilliant article on the use of Spinoza against religious tyrants:
“People who are led by passion rather than reason are easily manipulated by ecclesiastics. This is what worried Spinoza in the late 1660s, as the more repressive and intolerant elements in the Reformed Church gained influence in Holland. It remains no less a threat to enlightened, secular society today, as religious sectarians exercise a dangerous influence on public life.”
I can’t help but be reminded of a dramatic picture taken from the protest of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home at the Michigan State Capital. A crazed white man with a beard screams in the face of a police officer, presumably blocking his way into the capital and looking onward.
Of course, there is so much to say about this image. If the man is carrying the virus, now everyone in the vicinity of this person is at greater risk of catching it. But more generally, the affect of intense anger, privilege, and threat in the man’s face is evidence of a structure of feeling that hinges upon a belief in unending monetary accumulation enabled by toxic forms of capitalism and colonialism. Robinson says that we’ve been “wasting our children’s hopes for a normal life, burning our ecological capital as if it were disposable income, wrecking our one and only home in ways that soon will be beyond our descendants ability to repair.” Robinson’s diagnosis is a bit ignorant of the ways rich white men have created a huge percentage of the waste precisely by oppressing large segments of the world. Whereas initially this oppression included quite obvious forms of slavery, and still does in some ways, it now also includes extracting cheap labor and materials from the Global South, disposing electronic waste in Mongolia and Ghana, and ignoring the plight of the Maldives where the rising ocean already threatens to wreck their home.
Robinson appeals to a more capacious imagination in his piece, but we must ask — who is this “we” becoming newly conscious of these problems? There is not a small amount of privilege in Robinson’s take on climate change, an occasional feature of his novels that sometimes threatens my otherwise substantial admiration for his talent as a writer. As he says, riffing off of ninteenth-century sociologist Gabriel Tarde:
“we’re beginning to understand that this ‘we’ includes many other creatures and societies in our biosphere and even in ourselves. Even as an individual, you are a biome, an ecosystem, much like a forest or a swamp or a coral reef. Your skin holds inside it all kinds of unlikely coöperations, and to survive you depend on any number of interspecies operations going on within you all at once. We are societies made of societies; there are nothing but societies.
Yes, this is all true, but let’s also remember that each of these societies are also constructed out of political struggle. So-called interspecies cooperation is often the uneasy product of costly struggle that has only tentatively achieved some sort of equilibrium hastily applied with the term “health.” Are all of the parts of our bodily biome really cooperating out of a shared sense of peace or simply bracketing struggle as they focus on survival as a larger tentative problem? As Jasbir Puar points out in the introduction to The Right to Maim by applying Foucault’s notion of biopolitics to such social descriptions of life, bodily regularization is as much a technique of power as discipline — and is too often used to marginalize so-called “disregulated” bodies debilitated by war or racism. Reminding ourselves that the microorganisms inhabiting our body might not be willingly cooperating, but perhaps operate in a politics of forces in the service of bio-regularity gives a different take to the utopianism one can read in Robinson’s description of human life as a society. Perhaps we desire social connection, but it is always important to remember that such societies – on all levels – are constituted by power.
Just as there is no pure society, there is no obvious way to run an economy. As Robinson right points out, all economics are shaped out of political economy: “Economics is a system for optimizing resources, and, if it were trying to calculate ways to optimize a sustainable civilization in balance with the biosphere, it could be a helpful tool. When it’s used to optimize profit, however, it encourages us to live within a system of destructive falsehoods.” Economics-as-balancing-the-environment and economics-as-maximizing-profit are two different political models for understanding the economy. This theory of political economy is a major feature of The Mars Trilogy, where Robinson creates a caloric theory of value or eco-economics. As Marina describes it in Red Mars, “[e]veryone should make their living, so to speak, based on a calculation of their real contribution to the human ecology. Everyone can increase their ecological efficiency by efforts to reduce how many kilocalories they use” (298-9). Adopted to carbon or some other value, eco-economics could provide an alternative political economy to the capitalist predator that’s currently dominating our economic discourse — albeit still one with a humanist political prejudice. This would be yet another shift in the overall “structures of feeling” Robinson mentions: that even the most radical of imaginative and inclusive structures still have to contend with what they necessarily exclude or marginalize.