Slightly over two months ago, the ‘Brexit’ vote took place, leaving a lot of us in horror, lethargy, or at least confusion. If our confusion has receded as time has gone by, it is because we have become used to this new reality, not because it started making sense.

Today, it is not just the prospect of Britain leaving the EU that haunts the progressive mind. The present is so full of life-rupturing events and stunning evidence of regressing politics, that history seems to be dished up in Olympic proportions. A particular twist to this historical densification is the recent (tentative) declaration of the ‘Anthropocene’ epoch. Its official definition is that people have overtaken nature as the main force that shapes the planet, but a political interpretation might serve better. What if the Anthropocene is actually a systematic violation of the commons, assisted by a fight against common sense? An exploration using the Brexit case.

In spite of how much it shocked us, producing explanations of how such a thing as Brexit could happen was not difficult. We just did not expect the forces pushing for an exit to actually overcome the forces keeping the early-2016 European Union together. The surprise that the Britons actually did pull the plug, feels at par with such a thing as 2016 boasting the hottest summer ever. We know the issues, and have for long been disquieted by the amount of work to be done by progressive politics in order to get things straight, but such serious events actually striking so early and so forcefully is beyond us.

Shortly before that unfortunate day in June, Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant ran an article discussing the ‘unexpected’ and even ‘unlikely’ coalitions in the British EU referendum campaign.  Multinational corporations and a Green party had suddenly become friends, united by their shared passion for open borders and free exchange (be they goods or ideas). Meanwhile, Boris Johnson defied party lines and pleaded Leave, something Jeremy Corbyn would also have liked to do, but in his position couldn’t. The newspaper embellished the story with the logos and faces of the mentioned as to illustrate their remarkable connections. In the image below, the top duo is pro-European and the bottom pro-Leave.


Four world views

In a 2004 study, the Dutch ‘National Institute for Public Health and the Environment’ (RIVM) outlined four ‘world views’ in which different perceptions about human nature and justice give rise to different approaches to securing quality of life. RIVM placed these world views in a 2×2 matrix, strongly similar to the illustration in the Volkskrant article. In the RIVM matrix, the axes distinguish globalisation versus regionalisation, and efficiency versus solidarity. Each resulting quadrant has a pretty name and a tedious Cartesian one. From the top left going counter clockwise, they are Global Market (A1), Safe Region (A2), Caring Region (B2) and Global Solidarity (B1). In the figure below, some further context is given.


As you might recognise, A1 people are keen on market forces, while on the other end, B2 folks look out for a world composed of small, ecological communities. People in B1 think much of progress coordinated by governments and UN-type bodies. And those associated with the A2 quadrant, finally, think their quality of life is best assured when conserved behind stern borders – the agenda of right-wing populism.

The debate about Europe has become centred around the vertical axis: the global-regional axis – that of states, borders and sovereignty. This summer we could see this fault line underlying the Brexit case, but it is a structural characteristic of European (and even geopolitical) debate. The rather simplistic contradiction that arises is as follows. The upper couple (A1-B1) aims to secure welfare with fewer borders, whilst the bottom couple (A2-B2) believes this can be done through strengthening borders. Zooming in on the former duo, Global Market (A1) is focussed on economic welfare, while Global Solidarity (B1) rather looks at social and ecological welfare (or wellbeing). This duo is mostly in favour of European integration. Similarly, the European course as outlined by Juncker, Barroso and their colleagues and predecessors fits nicely with the world views held by the upper (‘1’) layer. The Europe 2020 strategy ‘for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth’ is a case in point: it aims to spur economic growth and, subsequently, secure social and ecological wellbeing.

This ‘geographical’ fault line, while being productive for populists, hampers fruitful debate and political progress for most parties. Much of public debate is absorbed by ‘we-they’ sentiments. People have started to believe that the fundamental question really is that of finding the ‘proper’ unity: of opening up or closing down, of refreshment by exchange or glory by exceptionalism. In particular, Greens – largely ‘located’ in the B1 quadrant – will recognize the uncomfortable feeling of being teamed up with the lot of Goldman Sachs in campaigning for what seems like a single, homogeneous agenda for further European integration.

All of that misses the point and frustrates political progress. The real question is what socio-economic model actually generates welfare, or wellbeing, and which models corrode them. How to strengthen the commons, that intriguing blend of social, ecological and economic assets? That question should be the point of departure for personal thought and public debate. Next, proper alliances may be formed – alliances that will look different from those we met on the Brexit stage. My claim is that the pairs grouped at each end of the ‘efficiency’ versus ‘solidarity’ axis (A vs B) have far more in common than those at the same end of the ‘globalisation’ versus ‘regionalism’ axis (1 vs 2).  Indeed, de Volkskrant may better label the two pairs of allies as false friends instead of remarkable ones.

A is for Anthropocene

Having arrived at this point, it might pay to take a deeper dive into the matter. If we, holding on to the RIVM plane, indeed rotate the conflict a quarter turn and start considering the A versus B divide, what group characteristics emerge as relevant and explanatory? Can we spice up the two-vector model so that it gives further insight into our current political conundrum?

Just last week, geologists have put forward a compelling case that the geological epoch of the Holocene is over and the planet has entered the Anthropocene. Mankind’s impact on the Earth as measured by oceanic acidification, atmospheric heating, landscape displacement and other such indicators, has acquired a lasting and decisive dimension. To me, though, the Anthropocene has a richer meaning. It can be understood as our society’s situation of peak carbon, peak capitalism and peak confusion. What’s more: we should put the blame on the paradigms, solutions and policies found in the ‘A’ column.

Global Marketeers and Safe Regioners strongly share a faith in market forces; in particular, a neoliberal approach in which the state is supposed to retreat but simultaneously maintains all the bureaucracy needed to absorb and devolve the risks taken by financial enterprises. Married with some good old ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘trickle-down’ rhetoric, we arrive at a Reaganesque philosophy that can materialise in either more regionalist and populist politics, or as globalist and business oriented; but both are equally harmful. Indeed, these politics contributed to the making of the Anthropocene.  More important than the planetary overcrowding and degradation – being states of being– it’s the processual features that matter: the way mankind arrives at those deepening Anthropocenic conditions. In her eponymous book, economic sociologist Saskia Sassen shows how present-day capitalism produces ‘expulsions’ of seemingly different kinds, but caused by a shared dynamic: one of thrusting down any part of life that does not pay to keep embedded in the economic fabric. They range from the contraction of the middle class in virtually all countries, to mass incarceration in the U.S. and mass youth unemployment in ‘PIIGS’ countries; but also include the people shaken from their land by corporate grabs, violent conflict or because of exacerbated climate events. But also the dying off of the land itself, including its wealth of species, advantageous microclimates, and its pockets of groundwater involve cases of expulsion, as are rivers and oceans that become stuffed with plastic and suffocated by artificial chemicals. As Sassen explains, these people and these non-human life forms are not only expelled in practice, but also erased from the major statistics according to which politics navigate. Both the commons and the common people get beaten, but we don’t even measure it.

While these expulsions have the effect of allowing for rather sunny representations of the critical state of the economy and wellbeing, there is a sense of crisis out there. Take the ‘état d’urgence’, the state of emergency, in France. Understandably, the country is in deeply-felt distress about the recent string of attacks, which, combined with a feeling of being overwhelmed by high numbers of refugee immigrants and a cumbersome economic situation, is very unsettling. But unfortunately, the état d’urgence fails to put focus on and motion into the places where intervention is needed. While ‘state of emergency’ is a pretty good descriptor for an accelerating Anthropocene, its use in France is the result of the same globalisation-regionalism divide that we have diagnosed as largely invalid. If there is an emergency to be recognised, it should be about dealing with neoliberal capitalism and its flurry of expulsions.

Contradiction and Irrationality

There is an old theme showing up here. Karl Marx highlighted that capitalism comes with contradictions, the most infamous of which is the erosion of its own fundaments. We now see this contradiction clearly at play: while capitalism fully relies on the global commons to thrive, after generations of enclosure and extraction we are now witnessing their categorical violation. To their discredit, those on the left column of the RIVM chart still believe markets are automatic machines of coordination and produce beautiful results when set ‘free’. In reality, financialised markets are not only of limited productivity, but demand a bureaucracy that would boggle the minds of GDR officials. As a consequence, its promise of progress and inclusion seems to have come to the end of its life cycle. Instead of bringing progress, recent capitalist policy has meant speculative acceleration, political dawdling, and cost shifting towards marginal and future generations.

Here capitalism is entangled in another contradiction: it covers up its expulsive dynamics, keeping policy makers subscribed to ‘economic growth’ because they feel that is the progressive answer to what we know now is the wrong question.

The diagnosis of (reproducing) contradiction is most closely related to A1, Global Market, politics. What about the other quadrants? As GroenLinks MEP Judith Sargentini advances, the recent politics that unfolded over the surge of refugees and migration, ISIS activity and civil terrorism, has a more profane quality to it. In her words: ‘in most of Europe, we are trying to cover up our economic issues with […] irrationalism’. Indeed, that word seems very fit to describe the A2 (Safe Region) politics that we recently experienced a move towards across the Atlantic. Irrationalism goes beyond contradictory politics: any remainder of internal logic has simply been abandoned and supplanted by bluntness. This ‘exit’ from common sense results in erosion of societal resilience, the crumbling of progressive governance structures such as the European Union, and in the end, loss of social and ecological wellbeing.

Navigating, not accelerating

In sum, the Anthropocene is a result of irresponsible forces and a most gloomy prospect if we go further down that road. So it’s time to set another course. Instead of heading full throttle into the unknown, society should carefully navigate the unchartered waters ahead. We require a civil society that is engaged and empowered against the forces – carbon, capital and confusion – of the Anthropocene. This is to be achieved by, preferably, a combination of B1-style multilevel coordination and B2-style regional economies that ‘think global and act local’.

However, it would not be fair to give A1 and A2 such thorough treatment and then uncritically applaud the Bs. B1 and B2 also have their vulnerabilities and pitfalls. Global Solidarity, the top right quadrant, perhaps yields the biggest surprise: diagonally opposed to A2 irrationalism, it is rationalism that haunts the B1s. With a faint kinship to its left neighbour, Global Solidarity assumes the possibility of large-scale rational coordination, though not through market forces but through governance. It leans even stronger on rationality since these governance forces don’t emerge spontaneously, as in A1 ideology, but deliberatively. Rationality is often seen as a good quality, and rightly so, but to some extent it lacks appeal and misunderstands community energy. Rational, evidence-based governance alone appears to be insufficiently persuasive to gain the civic and entrepreneurial traction needed to deliver the promises.

The biggest challenge for the Caring Region world view (B2) is naivety. To its credit, it is by far the most popular world view – at least among Dutch respondents in a 2003 survey, quoted extensively in the RIVM report. B2 is about ‘community spirit, civic duty, and social and cultural diversity,’ offering the best grounds for a contemporary ‘commons transition’. Currently B2 faces the challenge of lacking the checks and balances to deal with twenty-first  century problems that have feedback loops far exceeding regional dynamics. Ostromian ‘polycentric governance’ could assist here; and Caring Region then contains the civilian dedication to obtain the engaged, multi-scale politics we need so much.

In conclusion, it appears that support for green politics is widespread, but in a subterranean way. In terms of popularity, the Global Solidarity world view trumps A1 market thinking, and Caring Region beats irrational A2 ‘safety’. If we could overcome the current debate lock-in that persistently draws the fault line in the wrong place, the Green case could become a great deal simpler. As regards the ‘B’ side, Global Solidarity could draw inspiration from Caring Region philosophy in overcoming its strong reliance on rationality. Reversely, Caring Region would be well served when conjoining assessments of Anthropocenic dynamics in their politics, and seeking novel but evidence-based solutions. Great promise looms at the interface between B1 and B2 politics, well gauged but at the same time friendly to intuition; the politics in which the commons is given preference over markets, and fearlessly so.

This essay is based on a presentation given by the author on June 15, 2016 on invitation of the Europese Beweging Nederland (European Movement Netherlands). Schouten this spring published a book on the circular economy (in Dutch). On October 27, he will address the Pulse Meetup Day (Brussels, in Dutch) in a keynote discussing the circular economy and the commons.

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