Everything happens so much: on "emergence"

Notes on history, a new Cold War with China, changing technology, and why things are happening the way they are

A quick meta-note: This newsletter isn’t a book, so my approach to sketching out what’s going on outside won’t exactly be methodical. Instead, I’ll try to write on current events or useful examples, outlining themes that I see as they pop up. Maybe will pull together occasional posts that are more high-level orienting around broader trends I think are important to focus on.

In a 2017 talk at the Sonic Acts festival, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun discussed her theory of “crisis” in networked life — particularly how looking at changes in our situation as simply responses to exogenous shocks that come from nowhere can miss the point.

“What matters, again, isn't disruption,” Chun says. “It isn't what's ‘viral,’ but rather how things lie in wait - through our infrastructures, through our habits, through our default initial conditions.”

Whether the Novel Coronavirus came from a wet market in an emerging international manufacturing hub, accidental release from a nearby Chinese BSL-4 laboratory, or the global network of the American military (all of which are, to my mind, plausible hypotheses for which a definitive account may never come), the idea here is that the situation needs to be understood as necessarily emerging from the global economic and political conditions that preceded it — conditions of globalization, class struggle, and fights over social conditions. Similarly, the way that actors in the international community respond to the crisis is not without its own history, and thus must be understood as emerging from the dynamics that proceeded it.

Or, as Marx writes in the The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce... 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.

So as we proceed in trying to reckon with what’s happening in the world, taking this historical view on “emergence” can help us reckon with what is going on: to see changes in our situation as a result of COVID-19 not simply coming from nowhere or from people responding to current conditions, but from class formations seeking to advance positions and processes that had already been underway.

Two instances where I see this analysis being particularly useful, each of which may get their own posts at some point expanding on these outlines:

1. The Kissinger Institute and the American foreign policy blob coalescing around the idea of a “Great Power Competition” in which the United States now has a formidable adversary in the Chinese state.

This coalescing was underway long before the emergence of COVID-19 — Wilson Institue posts tagged “Great Power Competition” go back to 2016 — but the COVID-19 situation seems to be accelerating the development of a possible Second Cold War. Look to the conversations happening around the recent visa revocations of New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post journalists in response to US expulsion of Chinese reporters to see the ways that this rhetoric mirrors anti-communist sentiment that has been brewing as the United States’ post-USSR hegemonic position has waned.

For example, a Wilson Center/Kissinger Institute article titled “Beijing's Ongoing Battle with Independent Foreign Journalism” refers to the expelling of the reporters from three major US corporate media outlets as an “assault on the very concept of free media,” sneering at the idea that China would “create a false equivalence between its party/state-controlled journalists abroad and foreign editorially independent journalists working in China.”

Note here the contrast of “free media” and “editorial independence” with the Chinese approach, which elides the ability of corporate ownership and the historically close relationship between these outlets and the American intelligence state to impact the types of reporting that an “independent” New York Times would be getting up to in China. I’ll probably write more on this later, but it’s clear that these are the same approaches to positing American editorial “freedom” in conflict with communist “state repression” that proliferated during the Cold War. Indeed this approach seems to be accelerating quickly from so-called “independent” media outlets as it becomes clear that the United States is in no position to deal with keeping its own population safe, let alone act as a world-police force in the face of the crisis.

2. Proliferation of “hacker/vectoralist” class formations and Capital’s “Great Leap Forward”.

In her book A Hacker Manfesto and its recent follow-up Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse? McKenzie Wark outlined a hypothesis that we may be experiencing the emergence of new class formations, coming out of capitalism in the way that capitalism emerged from feudalism. The orthodox Marxist perspective is generally taken to be that capitalism generates the contradictions that lead to its own demise, those between proletariat and bourgeoisie. But where Wark challenges this orthodoxy is to suggest that instead of that dialectical relationship resolving into the establishment of global communism, it’s possible that we’re seeing the emergence of a new mode of production based on controlling the flows and production of information — just as the capitalist class subjugates and prescribes new relations for previously dominant classes like landowners, a “vectoralist” class comes to subjugate even capitalists to their own ends.

A way to test the intuitive sense of this theory is to ask the question: would you rather be at the helm of Nike, a multibillion-dollar company which doesn’t actually produce anything, or one of their suppliers out in Guangzhou or Wuhan?

An antagonism that emerges from these new class relations is between these “vectoralists” and what Wark calls the “hacker” class — those who produce, remix, and build infrastructure for the flows of information. As capital mashes bodies, Wark argues, vectoralism eats brains.

And I think this argument is worth considering as we face a world where a decent portion of the US population is now suddenly working from home, physically divested from the means of production, but still working away, if still a bit dazed as they get used to the new reality — it’s a process that was underway before COVID-19, but this lens of “emergence” might help us see coming into focus that which was already present beforehand.

The examples of historically-present forms gaining new power as this crisis accelerates go on and on — the growing supremacy of Amazon, DoorDash, and other “just-in-time” logistics companies; the slow collapse of the American welfare state coming into sharp relief as Steve Mnuchin says on television that he thinks $1200 is enough to help Americans make it ten weeks without work; the fact that we all know what a “Zoom” is — and as we look to what will be, this moment serves as a reminder that we must start by looking at what always had been, and what histories were trying to emerge even before this present moment came to be.