/ 3 February 2017

Negative messianism marks our times

Activists gather at Portland International Airport to protest against President Donald Trump's executive action travel ban in Portland
Activists gather at Portland International Airport to protest against President Donald Trump's executive action travel ban in Portland

I am back from the Night of Ideas and Philosophy, an all-night marathon of debates organised by the French Institute and various New York-based cultural institutions. The event took place at the Central Library on the Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. According to the New York police department, 7 229 people attended one or the other of the many platforms that were on offer throughout the night.

The necessity for this kind of engagement has never been as urgent as it is now.

I was asked to deliver the opening address. A few hours before I spoke, social media were abuzz with news about protests on behalf of scores of people trapped at airports around the United States following an executive order signed by President Donald Trump. The order, in effect, barred many foreigners, permanent residents and refugees, predominantly from Muslim lands, from entering or re-entering the US.

Our world is going through a rather peculiar moment of dread and confusion, for which there does not seem to be a name yet. But naming our time is part of what is at stake.

At least this is clear: ours is a time of planetary entanglement. But the “planetarity” of our predicament is not all that is. Times of planetary entanglement are propitious for all kinds of accelerations and escalations.

They are propitious for the renewed production of things, forms and imaginaries — baroque, grotesque, dystopian. Such forms strive to generate their own actuality through sheer brutality, excess and stupefaction.

From the podium where I was standing, I looked at the huge crowd assembled in the library lobby. I had the distinct feeling that many were genuinely frightened by what the last US electoral cycle has produced.

Maybe, in the midst of the dread, they were coming to the realisation that things could get really ugly. With icy brutality and for an entire week, the White House had been issuing executive order after executive order. Witnessing in disbelief what was now made fact, perhaps many in the crowd were awakening to the consciousness that things they always imagined as improbable might in fact happen.

Two metaphysical dispositions seem to engulf our global present: one in which the future is in the past and another in which the future fundamentally opens to nothingness and destruction.

Every minor difference is now imbued with ontological qualities. There is little consensus concerning what constitutes reality and how to access it.

With the market having been turned into the primary mechanism of the validation of truth, the trend towards a relentless impoverishment of the real has escalated.

The conciliation of the two divergent principles — market competition on the one hand and a set of entitlements and vested rights defined by social needs on the other — gave the post-war liberal order a semblance of stability. Today, the fate of capitalism no longer structurally depends on that of liberal democracy.

Convinced that destruction is inevitable, many are now asking: “Why wait? Why not bring it on now? Why not just end it all now, because what is coming will destroy us anyway?”

This is negative messianism.

Negative messianism is a messianism that has forfeited the idea of redemption. It is not about salvation.

In its version mineure, it is about survivalism. In its version majeure, revenge is its dream. It is about martyrdom, the urge to escape before the apocalypse, and eventually collective suicide. Negative messianism constitutes the metaphysical underpinning of these planetary times of ours. It is what gives rise to a renewed politics of pure violence in the form of either martyrdom or techno-millenarianism.

Negative messianism feels no need to search for or to bring about some form of community. In fact, communing is deemed impossible — a betrayal. It wants people to feel ashamed of where they come from, of who they are and of why they are here. It forces them to yearn for one thing only — an apartheid without reserve.

This is why we are seeing a renewed will to separate, to erect walls — the will to kill, as opposed to the will to care; a will to sever all relationships with the unwanted, as opposed to the will to engage in the exacting labour of repairing the ties that have been broken.

Then there is the return to animism, perhaps the best way to describe the convergence, and at times fusion, between the people we are and the objects, artefacts and the technologies that nowadays supplement or augment us.

Our technological condition and the return to animism are not without danger for the idea of freedom in this age of crypto-fascism. In this age of electronic reason, computational media and technologies have unleashed a hallucinatory power unknown in the history of humanity. The concept of evidence has been discredited, throwing into confusion the related forms of accountability, because there is no accountability without some form of evidence.

On the other hand, the last decades of the 20th century were marked by the universalisation of the market principle.

Having reached its maximal capacity for velocity, circulation and flight, finance capital is now more than just dictating its own temporal regime. It seeks to reproduce itself on its own, in an infinite series of structurally insolvent debts. The logic of escalation embedded in the very structure of global capitalism is today unbridled.

At a deep level, the casualty of these combined processes is liberal democracy itself. Democracy has no future in a factless world or in a world without evidence — that is, accountability. Such a world is by definition hostile to the very ideas of reason and freedom.

The question we are facing, then, in the US, in Europe and in other parts of the world, is: Why do we find ourselves dangerously skating on what increasingly looks like thinner and thinner political, cultural and ethical ice?

What does this portend for the future of reason, freedom and democracy — democracy understood as a planetary and shared responsibility in relation to all inhabitants of the Earth, humans and other than humans?

Achille Mbembe is a research professor in history and politics at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research