Chartbook on Shutdown #2: Writing in medias res

... history in the thick of it.

Shutdown is appearing next week. To accompany the launch I am doing a series of pieces on Chartbook to address some of the bigger, broader, more technical or theoretical issues at stake in the book.

These will include the book’s take on neoliberalism, the US Treasury market as the anchor of the global financial system, risk society, the anthropocene, the EM toolkit, low-income country debt, fascism and the American crisis, vaccine politics, neo-feudalism etc

There is a lot to discuss.

In today’s post what I want to reflect on is the fact that Shutdown is for me a first: a book written truly in the thick of things, in medias res.

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I’ve experienced big history up close before. The intifada in Palestine in the 1980s. The collapse of the communist regime in the GDR in 1989. But in its personal impact COVID was far more direct, both as a shadowy threat and in its immediate impact on my life, that of my family and immediate community. For me the crisis was compelling also in the sense that I was enrolled in writing and thinking about it with no let up and in real time.

Of course, it is not just the immediate events you are in the thick of. We are all immersed in our own inner, mental worlds. Books relate to each other. They form a kind of internal conversational circle. And, after a while, other voices chime in.

In the fall of 2019, months before the pandemic began to circulate in earnest, Perry Anderson subjected some of my work to a searching review in the pages of New Left Review. He observed that delivering narrative as if in medias res is a habit of mine.

His remark has been hanging over me ever since.

Anderson is right. I generally prefer a narrative mode that plunges you in to the middle of things, rather than beginning at the beginning. The in medias res approach is more engaging. It catches the reader’s attention from the start because they have to scramble to orientate themselves. It is also more transparent in its artifice. I prefer the deliberate and obvious break in the linear flow produced by a flashback - “now we interrupt the action to explain something you really need to know” - to the apparent simplicity and calm of “beginning at the beginning”, which in its own way begs all the same questions, but smuggles the answers into the smooth flow of a linear narrative.

As Anderson suggested, this stylistic preference also reflects a certain understanding of politics and agency and their relationship to history, which might broadly be described as Keynesian left-liberalism. As he puts it, “a ‘situational and tactical’ approach to the subject in hand determines entry to” the subject matter “in medias res”. It mirrors my preoccupation with “pragmatic crisis management in the form of punctual adjustments without illusion of permanency”.

Indeed, I would go further. I side with those who see “in medias res”, not just as a stylistic choice and a mode of historical and political analysis, but as defining the human condition - apologies for the boldness of that claim. Being thrown into pre-given situations define us, whether though social structure, language, concepts, identities or chains of action and interaction, in which we are willy nilly enrolled and to which we ourselves contribute, thereby enrolling others as well.

Whatever thinking or writing we do, however we choose to couch it and whatever our explanatory ambition, we do it from the midst of things, not from above or beyond the fray. There are different ways of articulating that relationship - more remote or more immediate - but no way out of that situatedness.

We are thrown into situations. Most of the time they don’t come with instructions. If they do come with instructions we should probably not trust them. We have to perform enquiries to figure out how we got here, what our options are and where we might be headed. To do the work of figuring out our situation we might resort to the tools of social science, like statistics or economic concepts. Political theory may help. But history writing too is part of the effort at rendering our situations more intelligible.

For some colleagues, history is distinctive because it studies the distant past, or because it takes the archive as its source. For me, self-consciously inhabiting our situatedness in time is what differentiates historical enquiry and writing from other forms of social knowledge. History is the attempt to produce knowledge of the flux from within the flux. As Croce remarks: “All true history is contemporary history”.

The speed, intensity and generality of the COVID pandemic and the cognitive challenges it posed, gave this entanglement a new intensity. Even at the best of times, however, the problem is that being in medias res it is easier said than done. It is both inescapable and, at the same time, mysterious.

We are in medias res you say? In the middle of things? But which things? And how do those things relate to us and define us? Who or what are we in relation to these things? How do we chart the middle of this world? Who has the map? Who has the compass?

For Anderson my “in medias res” approach is a form of evasion, a way of “dispensing with a structural explanation of” a situation’s “origins”. That does not follow.

What I am, however, suspicious of is the facile assumption that we know what the structural realities are that define a situation, whether it be World War I or COVID. To my mind, it is only when you take the difficulty of thinking in medias res seriously, only if you are willing to experiment with different definitions and to probe your assumptions, that you actually are wrestling with the complexity of history and our determination by “structural realities”.

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Certainly, these are the questions that hang over my attempt to map the COVID shock in Shutdown. We were clearly in the middle of something. But who is the “we”? And what, for heaven’s sake, were we in the middle of?

As early reviewers have noted, one thing that Shutdown cannot be accused of is being shy about the structures that frame it. My wager, and I regard it as no more than that, is that we can frame an understanding of the crisis in terms of two clusters of forces: on the one hand the crisis-ridden development of financial capitalism, politics and geopolitics, what you might call the old familiars (the crisis of neoliberalism for short) and on the other the shock of the anthropocene - the virus and climate.

The basic idea is that 2020 was the disorientating train wreck that it was, because of the unprecedented intersection of these two sets of challenges.

We were not ready for it. The one body of recent political thought that did attempt to address the intersection of economic, political and social arguments with the environmental crisis, was the Green New Deal. It grasped the need to think the environmental crisis, social and economic policy at the same time. It certainly recognized the need for a new emphasis on the care economy and public health. But, it was orientated towards the wrong natural shock: climate not an emerging infectious disease.

It also misled us as to the timeline. The climate crisis causes those of us in the West who are relatively insulated from its immediate effects to think in terms of a time horizon of twenty to thirty years. We were not braced for a pandemic that moved at the pace of a Blitzkrieg.

The chapters of Shutdown map various facets of this clash - in the financial markets, in European politics, in the US, in Latin America, in vaccine development in the third world debt relief. The Guardian published a good selection from the introduction.

But mapping the shock of 2020 in intellectual, conceptual and historical terms is one thing. Truly being in medias res is, I fear, a deeper challenge than that. Perhaps it is my years of therapy speaking here, but I am repeatedly struck by the psycho-intellectual mechanisms that we mobilize to avoid facing the situation we are in.

It is not simply a matter of correctly identifying the “things” that we are in the middle of and our position in relation to them. Sustaining that relationship is itself a challenge. The apparent immediacy of being in medias res is not just complex. It is fleeting.

There are at least three tendencies, three paths along which our minds wander away from the daunting reality facing us. We wander from something novel and shocking to things in the past that are familiar. We wander from the shock that we actually face, to something supposedly even bigger that is as yet hypothetical. Or, we wander to a future beyond the present that defines the present moment as a parentheses. Each of these is comforting, but also obfuscating.

In writing Shutdown I wrestled with all three.

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My witness for the first tendency - to drift out of the present to a more familiar past - is Karl Marx.

One of the most often-quoted passages of Marx’s 18th Brumaire, is the following: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” This is one of the most famous formulations of the structure-agency problem.

But then Marx goes on: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.”

This, to my mind, is Marx describing the extreme difficulty of staying in medias res - with all its novelty and the particular possibilities that arise from that novelty. Instead of facing the present unadorned, we invoke spirits of the past, battle slogans and costumes borrowed from earlier epochs.

There is a passion in such appeals, of course. History serves as motivation. As Marx says, the great 18th-century revolutions were supercharged by Roman inspiration. But by the mid-nineteenth century those historical references had become stale and disabling.

In a year like 2020 that was suffused with talk of New Deals, new Social Contracts, war economies, fascism and “Reichstag fire” moments, I could not help thinking of Marx’s indictment of the worn out repertoire of nineteenth-century liberalism.

We need to be on our guard.

It may be encouraging to invoke a Green New Deal, but the balance of class forces that made the New Deal of the 1930s or the postwar Keynesian welfare state into what they were has no counterpart today. Evoking the Weimar Republic may add to the drama of the Trump meltdown. But how does it illuminate a political crisis that was all-American and very 21st-century?

We should beware our tendency to rummage amongst the waxworks, our attraction to the Madam Tussaud’s of dark times. We should be particularly wary of claims to realism founded on that basis.

If we are to face the acute crises of our moment, is it not time, in Marx’s words, to “let the dead bury their dead”?

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A second tendency, which has really taken me by surprise and which I struggle with myself, is the tendency to deflate the immediate shock of the pandemic by reference to something else, larger, even more dramatic, that for many of us at least is a reality yet to come. It is not so much tradition weighing like a nightmare, as Marx puts it, but a flight into nightmares, obscuring the stark reality we are already in. Rather than adjusting our priors, we cling to the model of reality we already have. Better the devil you know. You might also call this the “climate v. pandemic problem”.

I first became acutely conscious of this tendency at a meeting with British colleagues in 2020, in which were were tasked to discuss the problems facing the UK in the years ahead. The proposition was as follows: “As we recover from the pandemic, how do we adjust to the structural challenges of climate and Brexit?” At the time, the delta variant had not yet shown its full force. On account of the pandemic, the UK had suffered the worst recession in 300 years. A large part of the workforce was still furloughed. International travel to the UK was basically interrupted - we were holding the meeting on zoom. The UK government’s borrowing had blown out, as not since 1945. And yet, all this was already displaced to the background. “As we recover from the pandemic ….”, the real focus was on the “structural problems” of climate and Brexit.

The fact that the pandemic had been long predicted - on structural grounds - and those predictions had now been crushingly confirmed, hadn’t registered. Since then I have lost count of how many times I have found myself in conversations premised on the idea that beyond 2020 there is some other, different and bigger problem that we should “really” be focused on.

OBVIOUSLY, I am not for a second trying to minimize the climate crisis. And in Shutdown I cross-cut the narrative of the pandemic with other crises. What I am grasping for is a way of thinking all these things at once, a way of encompassing the convergent, overlapping, self-inducting forces that drive the “polycrisis”.

Instead, what so often seems to happen is that huge and very real future threats deflect us from addressing the awesome implications of the new things happening all around us.

It has long been a working hypothesis for many in climate politics that what the world needed to shake it out of its complacency was a giant disaster. After COVID I am no longer sure that will be enough.

As of this summer, excess deaths from COVID worldwide are estimated at 10 million. Global GDP contracted by 20 percent in the spring of 2020. At that time 3.3 billion people were working, if at all, under constricted circumstances. At least 1.6 billion young people were furloughed from education. All of this was utterly unprecedented. We have experienced a true catastrophe. Indeed, we are still living it. And yet, can one really say that our basic assessment of the way in which the world’s risks are balanced has shifted commensurately?

America has not suffered a more serious disruption since 1945, but is a giant biomedical investment at the heart of the Biden administration’s spending programs? There are bits and pieces, here and there. But, in his list of great challenges where did it fit? Alongside the climate crisis, racial and social justice and America’s place in the world, there was “the recovery from the covid crisis”.

The pandemic is transient. It is something we recover from, a passing phase, not a window onto reality.

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Having started 2020 writing a book about climate, Shutdown is an attempt to recalibrate my anthropocenic reality. An effort to grasp all the things coming at us, at once.

Shutdown is also an exercise in wrestling with the ghosts of history. Much as I am inspired by Keynes, his reality is not ours. The crisis of neoliberalism does not imply a return to the moment of social democracy. The time we are in, is weirder. Daniela Gabor calls it an era of revolution without revolutionaries. When we dissect the modern economic policy mix the resulting anatomy resembles Frankenstein.

Monsters were a common reference point in 2020.

And to make sense of that one of the friendly ghosts that we have summoned in recent years is Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist of the interwar period. One of the most commonly quoted passages comes from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. It is rendered in one of two version:

‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’.

or 

“The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.”

It is a fabulously evocative passage. But shouldn’t it prompt the question: Given that we are surrounded by morbid symptoms of political decay and monstrous new forms of policy intervention, does it follow that there is a new world waiting to be born? A new order to come? Is this promise of something new to come, not another way of avoiding the reality of our situation?

This for me is the third way of describing the present without actually being in medias res: project a future beyond, such that the present is an interlude between orders.

Of course, Gramsci as a revolutionary Communist writing in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution thought he knew what that new order was.

What entitles us to such confidence?

Nor is this a question confined to the left. It haunts bankers and investors too. Over and over again you hear them asking, how can we go on like this? How do we get to a more stable place? Won’t this blow apart? When will normalization begin?

It is tempting to reply: “I hate to break it to you, but the thing about capitalism is the best that we can possibly hope for is pragmatic crisis management in the form of punctual adjustments without illusion of permanency” i.e. the left-liberal Keynesian creed.

In any case, this is the third temptation I think we have to fight if we are actually to stay in medias res: the temptation to look for something beyond the present, to imagine that there is some greater order to come, that the disorders of the present are the reflection of an interregnum.

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How then to describe this situation and the imperative to focus as resolutely as we can on the here and now?

The image I end up with in Shutdown is that of a tight rope walk, but this is a tight rope walk with a difference. This is a nightmare tight rope. It may have a beginning, but it does not have a fixed and secure end.

A tight rope with no end.

If you lose concentration even for a second, where do you end up? You end up plunging into the void, as we were plunging in March and April 2020 with the world economy imploding and billions of people in jeopardy. And we know, or at least we think we know, that there is far worse where COVID came from.

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This is the second in the Chartbook on Shutdown series, it is also a first installment towards my long-overdue answer to Anderson. In future installments I will reply to his reading of Deluge, Wages of Destruction and Crashed.