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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Fight between Carnival and Lent” (1559), oil on panel, 118 x 165 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (image via Web Gallery of Art)

With 15 fresh, riveting essays by notable political analysts and international studies scholars from nearly as many different countries, The Great Regression, Heinrich Geiselberger’s new volume addressing the many perilous aspects of global interdependence, is a must-read for anyone curious to know more about the deeper structures at play in contemporary international politics.

It will register as particularly refreshing for readers who have grown weary of the mainstream media’s circumlocutory, lamely palliative treatment of today’s rampant global woes. The fraught landscape these writers describe, in sobering if not grim terms, is not one that might soon bend, nor one that is incipiently bending. The world portrayed here is one that is already hellbent.

The contributors’ interdisciplinary range — including journalists, philosophers, sociologists, literary authors, cultural critics, historians and political scientists, among others — makes their generally shared tone of unrelenting urgency and emphatic conviction all the more compelling.

From one taut piece to the next, what the reader finds is not a sequence of differently inflected, somewhat safely conditional forewarnings of an imminent, yet-conjectural ‘great regression’ on an imaginable horizon. Premonitory collections of that sort were already available several decades ago, and their prescriptions were clearly not taken quite seriously enough.

As such, what readers have here are multi-perspectival analyses — now broadly global, now rigorously thematic, now subtly philosophical, now regionally focused — of a ‘great regression’ that is well underway, and one whose consequences are already being seen and felt, and for the most part suffered, by people of most every social stratum the world over.

Geiselberger opens his preface with a brief quote from a 2011 article by Ulrich Beck, and it’s this quote that resonates unwaveringly throughout the subsequent couple hundred pages: “When a world order breaks down, that is when people begin to think about it.” It is thus with those incisive clauses in mind — along with Geiselberger’s succinct definition of the ‘great regression’ as “the product of a collaboration between the risks of globalization and neoliberalism” — that readers are equipped to take in the rest of this remarkably multifaceted, thematically stratified, indeed polyphonic volume.

For example, Arjun Appadurai’s essay addressing the surges of populist authoritarianism all around the world is followed by Zygmunt Bauman’s discussion of crises of migration and integration, which opens with a passage from Kafka’s “The Departure.” The next couple chapters, by Donatella della Porta and Nancy Fraser, respectively, outline the ways in which the ostensibly progressive ideals and inclusivity-fostering agendas of certain democracies have been so consistently deployed in favor of capital that they’ve weakened the very societal support systems they purported to uphold, creating too few winners and an ever-amassing majority of losers — progression ushering in, as it were, its own waves of regression.

Thereafter, Eva Illouz uses Israel as her focus to discuss internal radicalization; Ivan Krastev references a novel by José Saramago to contextualize how so many nations have gone from disconnected to connected, then to barricaded, as citizens of other nations flow over their borders; essays by Bruno Latour, Paul Mason and Robert Misik focus primarily on recent political developments in Europe to address the increasingly defunct strictures and structures put in place by unscrupulous neoliberal capitalists, while Pankaj Mishra does much the same from a more broadly global perspective.

Elsewhere, Oliver Nachtwey discusses decivilization and regressive modernization, while Wolfgang Streeck delves into the return of repression in an age of false narratives; and David Van Reybrouck heralds the end of the European Union with airs of both sincere and cheeky fondness in a kind of open letter addressed to EU President Jean-Claude Juncker. Among the most arresting chapters in The Great Regression is “Post-capitalist counter-movements,” César Rendueles’s veritable master class in analytical relativism and empirically informed critique, in which the “success” of capitalism comes across as tremendously more fearsome than its “collapse”: “If we want to avoid catastrophe, we have to pass from the radicalization of normality to the normalization of a break.”

Hieronymus Bosch, “Triptych of Garden of Earthly Delights” (detail: Hell) (c.1500), oil on panel, Museo del Prado, Madrid (image via Web Gallery of Art)

In his collection-closing piece, “The populist temptation,” Slavoj Žižek, whose multidisciplinary approaches and oft-dystopic views are right at home in this volume, issues a kind of call-to-arms to a worker-oriented left to rebuild itself — yet hopefully not ‘rebrand’ itself — and to do so in a way that transcends national borders. For the Slovenian philosopher, the “big lesson of global capitalism is that nation-states acting alone cannot do the job — only a new political international can possibly bridle global capital.”

The Great Regression consists of descriptions and actionable prescriptions, not loose predictions. It’s a collection of analyses and sharp critiques, not theories. The moment for abstract solutions and promises of gradual change has long since passed; no longer can even the most aloof, sheltered elites honestly deny the disastrous statuses quo, societal as well as environmental, that capitalistic overreach, empty ‘Third Way’ ideals, and failed neoliberal agendas have brought about, with all the electoral volatilities, economic uncertainties, refugee crises, radicalisms, recessions, repressions, and xenophobic outcries that have by now collectively become one and the same quaking political landscape. This is why it’s so crucial that these timely essays cut right to the chase of a global crisis that’s already taking place. The overall vision they portray is that of a particularly chaotic scene à la Bruegel. Depending on how hellish things get — or on how much further they can bend before they break — the next scene might take place in an underworld à la Bosch.

The Great Regression (2017) is published by Polity Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers. I’d like to add here that the several chapters of this book translated into English from various other languages are by and large brilliantly rendered. 

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Paul D'Agostino

Paul D'Agostino, Ph.D. is an artist, writer, translator and curator. He is former Art Editor at Brooklyn Magazine and The...