I want to let you in on a little secret. So you know what to expect when you are watching a film or reading a novel and suddenly the protagonist comes across an organisation or club or grouping of individuals – usually all wearing matching uniforms – that wants to employ his or her assistance. You know, they tend to walk in step with one another, like to repeat a lyrical motto, and justify their philosophy and actions in the name of preserving, establishing, or re-establishing some sort of stated Order? Well, there is a good chance these folks are actually antagonists. This trope, presently bordering on being a cliché, is being employed with an alarming frequency amongst ‘creative’ writers. Traditionally, this trope was applied to some allegory for Nazis or Commies, and because these entities were fairly universally seen as bad, there was no need to labour the point. More recently, writers have been attempting to apply this trope as a trick, a bait-and-switch. Certain writers think they can pull a fast one, introducing this group as the ‘good guys’ only to pull the rug out from under you with a mid-second-act reveal that they are, in fact, fascists and they have been using our protagonist to unwillingly see out some seriously evil stuff. I see this, over and over, and think what is going on? This is not a twist, is it not obvious? Sure, they tone it down a bit, cutting out comical salutes, blue-eyes with blonde-hairdos combos, and the wearing of arm cuffs, but Hitler in sheep’s skin is still Hitler, right? The unoriginality alone boggles my mind. I mean, it is a bit ridiculous. There has been a wholly unoriginal obsession with using this trope (I assume because it is an easy way to make your film meta) with some form of ‘time police’, fanatically bent on maintaining ‘the timeline’. This is used in three ongoing series I can think of, right off the top of my head, Rick and Morty, The Umbrella Academy, and Loki, and I am sure there are plenty more. The one remotely clever thing they will do to make this trope a twist is to make the protagonist morally dubious. But we have known for decades that the days of perfect superheroes are long gone. How could these writers break a key principle: do not insult the intelligence of your audience?
But slowly I begin to think that what I see as a literary faux pas, actually reveals a much darker reality.
Despite human beings’ preternatural ability to pick up on patterns and perceive the uncanny valley, something about our contemporary world has made us eerily colour-blind, at least blissfully ignorant, to fascism. Perhaps it is all fatigue. An over-application of Godwin’s Law, which states that, regardless of topic or context, the longer an online conversation thread extends, the more probable it is that an analogy to Hitler and the Nazis will present itself. Today, it is such a cliché to compare someone’s actions to the Nazis, that we fear what the public might think of us if we were to do something so remarkably unoriginal. Forget if it looks like, quacks like, and probably is a duck. This is indeed, a piece of the puzzle, but I pin a bulk of the responsibility for the state of things on a silly little lie, hidden in an iconic image.
In 1941, the 1 March issue of Marvel Comic’s Captain America #1, hit racks emblazed with a cover depicting the titular hero punching out the still-sitting Führer of Germany, Adolf Hitler. This image immortalised and registered the idea, the lie: fascism is dead, we beat it. And an image with that kind of power is hard to break. Given life by this depiction, the lie lived on to become a key pillar of American politics. If it were to be revealed that they had not, in fact, defeated the Nazis, and the Nazis were within, what an existential crisis the US would have on their hands! Nazis in the twenty-first century equates to dividing by zero. Error. Undefined. Does not compute. So, when 2016 began with a group of right-wing gun nuts – interestingly uniformly dressed in camouflage – occupying a wildlife preserve in Oregon… well, we cannot just start slinging around labels, now can we? And when the 2017 fall semester at the University of Virginia began with a group of foaming-at-the-mouth white nationalists – too young to grow the emblematic beards of their Oregonian brethren these human approximations of fragile masculinity took tiki torches, polo shirts, and boat shoes as their uniform – marching through Charlottesville… well, you know, ‘boys will be boys’. And, despite how much the far-too-many pro-Trump rallies held over the last four years looked, sounded, and felt (likely smelt, but I was not there to confirm) like it, remember, Captain America had defeated Hitler and the Nazis. And even after 2021 was rung in by the sound of the idiotic incoherent wails of a tripartite coalition of neo-fascist militant groups, the Oathkeepers, the Proud Boys, and the Three Percenters – while not necessarily uniform, they dressed themselves in various uniforms ranging from colonial revolutionary soldier garb to the disgusting appropriation of Native American traditional dress, topped with the revered Confederate flag – that mental hurdle could not be easily climbed over. And they say the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist. But he really has to up his game when he plays in the same league as the United States of America.
What I think writers are attempting to do with the reimagining of the trope is actually eloquently demonstrated by the British philosophers Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, of The Rolling Stones fame, in their 1968 hit song, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. The song is essentially a long first-person introduction with a fun take on the Rumpelstiltskinian game of ‘won’t you guess my name’. On the surface, this appears to just be a song about the Devil singing us his storied career of evil deeds. But if this was, as the drinkers of the Satanic Panic Kool-Aid would have us believe, then why would they give away the culprit in the title (and based on interviews, the title was carefully considered by the band). You see, the Devil is a trickster, and when he repeatedly asks us what his name is throughout the tune it is a jest, mockery. The twist, rather a reveal, comes halfway through the third verse when they ask who it was that killed the Kennedys, with the answer that, of course, it was us all along. And suddenly, a silly tune about the Devil points the finger. We are implicit. The point of the song is that it has always been easy to pass the buck. And so, when something truly horrible takes place, fear not, this was the work of evil, some supernatural entity.So long as we remain good, blah blah blah, at least now we can sleep at night. The writers using this trope fail because they overcompensate with morally grey antiheroes, another overused cliché, and often to no good effect. Shock and awe, now please see yourself out. Yet, the Rolling Stones, through ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, ask a question that I feel has become an essential milestone of maturity for all those of us growing up in America today: Are we sure we are the good guys?
Now, having suffered over thirty years of paradigmatic revolutionary constipation, the need to ask this question takes discussion of world order to a new level. When you really think about it, this is a scary, sobering question. The sort of question that makes it so that you can see your own breath when such doubt-filled words mix with the atmosphere. The reverberations of such an utterance shatters any rose-tinted glasses. It is also uncomfortably familiar. Why didn’t more ‘Good Germans’ speak up and prevent the rise of the Third Reich? How did the granting of an independent Jewish state to the Israeli people, an international gesture largely motivated by a needed response to one of the most horrific episodes of human rights violation in the twentieth century, lead to one of the twenty-first century’s most grotesque displays, complete with notes of conquest, erasure, and apartheid – things we thought we put to rest, definitively, in the previous century? Where do all those fascists sitting in the Parliament of the European Union come from? How come the so-called biggest democracy in the world is ruled by an ever so popular neo-fascist party? Ditto Brazil, Hungary, Poland. And what can we say about Orwellian China and a Russia ruled by nationalist thugs? These questions are complex and each time we repeat them they grow in complexity. Yet they are too often examined through simple lenses. The resultant simple solutions refract against the complex questions making things a whole lot worse. Instead, we must vivisect the web of lies that brought about the current world order to maintain contextualisation and navigate a path forward.
From the start we should keep in mind that webs of lies can be quite deceptive. This may seem obvious, but such profoundly simple affirmations keep us on course in travelling the trails of complexity. Through the combined efforts of lies, propaganda, uncertainty, and language-games, the web conceals two concepts that, if I am unable to convince you they are facts (heaven help us in these post-truth times), their consideration will be useful in moving through this issue. First, World Order is a very new concept only going back about as far as the beginning of globalisation. To clarify, colonialism for me is not globalisation, there is a great difference between resource extraction and giving enough of a damn about the world beyond your doorstep to recognise the existence of a wider world and the other people in it. Second, the World Order, as we know it, was created by the Americans for the purposes of peace, driven by war or the threat of it. Having said that, I caution against giving Americans too much credit (you know how we Americans are with our egos). World Order is a simple compound bastardisation, arrived at through a long evolution, thrust upon a complex world. The hubris is well stated in the words of the late, great American comedian, George Carlin, when he said ‘evolution is slow, smallpox travels fast’.
These words ring prescient in a world seemingly ordered by a virus, as explored by Kanchana Mahadevan in her review of Vinay Lal’s The Fury of COVID-19. But to label our current times by such a catchy banner is a bit ominous. Viruses exist in paradox and so an order by virus would see us in a much more chaotic place than even the current turbulent world. The existence of a virus is dependent upon the destruction of its host and then the seeking out of yet another host until, well, extinction. The virus has given some a clearer perspective on the messy state of our affairs which may well lead to extinction and given others an opportunity to grab yet more power.
This brings us to the first lie: that world order is a historic entity. First, it is folly to assume that if something is historic, any attempt to unpack it leads one down the rabbit hole into the abyss of the past, therefore to hell with history. Our present, and even our future, is always comprised of a significant configuration of the past and that is often taken for granted. I am reminded of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign slogan ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’. ‘It’s continuity, stupid’. So, when examining this lie, it is not to dispatch with history, but to dispatch with the colonial power of taking the past for granted. Certainly, there is an organisational element to time and progress that extends well before those creatures called humans crawled upon the Earth’s surface. We have even evidenced the ordering power of nature, but this phenomenon has been somewhat co-opted and appropriated by the West’s greatest Frankensteinian creation – Modernity.
Modernity showed how truly powerful the granting of empowerment and agency, even if only to a select few, can be. So much so that postmodernism has failed to usurp its domineering hangtime. Postmodernism, like many critiques of modernity, cannot exist outside the parameters set by modernity. Postmodernism had the success rate equal to an individual wishing to challenge the reality of gravity by jumping off of the Empire State Building, only supplied with two extended middle fingers and a ‘I reject your reality and substitute my own’ mentality. The power wielded by modernity comes through its adeptness to colonise thought and the scientific advancements that could provide theoretical justification. But these are not perfect, especially when the ability to colonise thought is also to colonise the epistemology of your science.
This particular spectre haunts the science behind the notion of race and how, as Yuri Prasad points out, it has become ‘intricately woven into the world order’. Prior to the contemporary notion of world order, the West was obsessed with the order of nature, or at least where nature lacked order, it demanded the organising or taming by a higher being. Enter humans and natural law. But categorisation has proven itself to be quite the Pandora’s box, rather everything must be put in its own box, each box subdivided into another box and so it goes, ad infinitum. And whether or not scientific justification was demanded by the Enlightenment, Science, revved up to make great strides, saw no problem putting itself to the job of normalising racism. And while great work has been done to debunk the pseudoscience of race, the idea germinated popular parlance and public opinion. Since Science could walk away from the race controversy, for now at least, a more solid laying bare of cracks in the foundation would be necessary to call it into question.
The Soviet agronomist Troflam Lysenko, as mentioned by Jerry Ravetz, would demonstrate the fatal flaw of science as unquestioned wisdom in terms of policy influence. Lysenko saw the brand of science practiced in the West as corrupted by the idea that the world was ordered by competition and capitalism, knowing the true way of the world was communism. This idea drove him to recommend an agricultural philosophy where crop seeds were to be planted close together as they would cooperate in proletarian brotherhood to share resources and grow together. And while I like to think that the top one percent of Western crops do not fund the endemic structures that keep other crops from flourishing, the science does not hold out for commi crops. Lysenko’s influence would lead to catastrophic famine not only throughout the USSR, but also in the People’s Republic of China after Mao saw to the adoption of Lysenkoism. But Ravetz points to a dire crisis in science that goes beyond the turbulence of pseudoscience and populist sentiments.
Instead of waiting around for a superman to bring about a new world order, Ravetz has been feverishly writing on the postnormal predicament in science. Things need to change, but keying in on subtext from former US president Eisenhower’s farewell address, Ravetz notes an ossification where ‘enlisting of the symbol of science in policy debates leads inevitably to the politicisation of science itself, and then to the confusion and hence corruption of its norms. Simplistic policy crusades invoking Science, demonising all who withhold uncritical support, threaten the integrity of science as no overt attack ever could.’ Ravetz’s first proposed solution was to extend the ‘peer community’, but in light of how complex the problem has become, a greater rethink is in order which not only brings even more voices to the decision-making table, but incorporates new innovations forged in a cross cultural and transdisciplinary jazz of thought.
Cross-cultural enrichment is also the message of Anwar Ibrahim’s report on the state of the ummah. Ibrahim begins with a debunking of the concept of the Muslim World as some sort of monolithic entity. After all, Islam was born into a world of difference, not only seeing itself as an intrinsic piece of the global mosaic, but the ultimate navigation forward. To think it would be without a little diversity is unrealistic. Ummah, Ibrahim argues, is an ought category. It has plural meanings, especially throughout its many uses in the Qur’an, their significance depending on each context. Ibrahim takes this to the next level explaining that ummah stands not for the reality of a civilisation, but an ideal that civilisation ought to strive for, ‘that despite the diversity of the Muslim world, differences and contradictions, polities and politics of past and present, the dissensions and discords of history and contemporary times, there ought to be some semblance of unity amongst Muslims.’ This lies at the heart of Ibrahim’s calls for La Convivencia – a return to a transcendent multiculturalism modelled after the Al-Andalus of Umayyad yesteryear.
Yet, before we can see where we ought to be going, it becomes necessary to examine the reality of where we are. Abdelwahab El-Affendi questions the vicious cycle of violence the Middle East appears to be in by asking the question: ‘how did the region’s brightest moment, the Arab Spring protests of the 2010s, turn so suddenly and unexpectedly into the whole world’s darkest moment?’. Tragically the answer is by design, but in the details lies the path to farce. The design is cast in the spirit of peace. A confluence of contradictions has condemned the Middle East. ‘In the good old days, savages who stormed our region from the uncivilised wilderness ended up being civilised by the experience. More recent hordes are not so lucky,’ El-Affendi writes. Instead, the so called civilised become barbarians and the tables are turned, all in the name of the New World Order, conceived in the ashes of World War II.
In the blood-soaked years of the early twentieth century, if the concept of World Order was not created, then it was at least made professional. The Europeans had failed at crafting a world order. This was one of the key hypotheses that has not only formed the United States of America but formed the vision of the world they would seek to build. It was a slow evolution. And the US really had the world thinking they would bring about a new world as the first post-colonial state. But an internal contradiction would only be fitting for a nation that would craft such a fragile world order. With each expanse, a swift return to hermitage. A historical pendulum keeps the cadence of American history. First, a fight for self determination of the Thirteen Colonies, but then a turn inward when France sought to do the same. Then the Monroe Doctrine breaking the new world from the old followed by a civil war. Then Manifest Destiny, followed by the age of isolationism. Then the American Empire, the World Wars, the Truman Doctrine – which truly cut the world in twine – and the Bush Doctrine that tried to modify the Truman Doctrine for a world of us vs. them, where them was transitioned from communists to terrorists. The pendulum pushes the US into the pit of despair as four years under Donald Trump both sought to continue the War on Terror while also making NATO pick up the slack, and having the country look inward to make America Great, again! As the American business writer, Tom Peters, once put it, ‘if you’re not confused then you’re not paying attention’.
World Order began with US President Woodrow Wilson. The Great War was largely a European war. Indeed, battles took place elsewhere, especially in Asia, but those that were not the proxy conflicts of their European colonisers would have occurred irrespective of whether or not the rest of the world was into the trend. But Wilson saw his Fourteen Points as the first proposal of a true world order. The war may have been European, but the peace would be global and a ‘peace to end all peace’ while we are at it. This peace was embodied in the doomed League of Nations. The subsequent US President Franklin Roosevelt dreamed of a vast improvement in a second iteration. His successor Harry S Truman would see to its baptism in two nuclear bombings. A lasting peace, motivated by both the refreshing air of peacetime and the terror of its antonym. A conference in San Francisco in April of 1945 would create the United Nations as the embodiment of the world order as successor to the ineffective League. And then suddenly the evolutionary process of global dialogue stopped. A second iteration was apparently enough. The world now had a platform to come together on so that they would not actually have to talk to each other. And so, the superpowers would not. Instead, they would spend around four decades exchanging cold looks and occasionally hand down announcements. Palestine is to be cleaved; Israel gets a state. The US is allowed into Korea, but appeasement then means that Korea also gets cleaved. Suez goes to Egypt; troops to Cyprus. The People’s Republic of China is in; the Republic of China (Taiwan) is out. Piece by piece the board is staged. The world is carefully bifurcated.
Then came 9 November 1989. A gaff during a routine civil service press conference resulted in a rhetorical bomb that prematurely opened up travel between East and West Germany. Within hours, men, women, and children were hard at work tearing down the Berlin Wall and the countdown to doomsday for the USSR had been set in motion. And for the last time, a world order hinged on us vs. them would have something resembling a clear demarcation for such labels. Many asked, how would the world order be constructed now? Yet no international dialogue took place. While the Cold War hosted four decades with no shortage of events that should have provoked such a dialogue, no talking was to be had. Logically, no talking was to be had after the Cold War either. While everyone assumed a new world order was afoot, some were too afraid to give it a name, while I think others assumed it was time to rest on the laurels of progress. The mountain top had been attained, right? The good guys had won the day!
There is a vast discussion of the Cold War and what came next throughout this issue. The fall of the Berlin Wall is a focal point because it was the last time all agreed that what must come next was a New World Order, but what that order would be was very uncertain. It all happened so fast, even those who saw the writing on the wall were fully unprepared for what was fundamentally a world at peace. For the American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, it was the end of history. History seen narrowly as this naïve duelling of the fates without a worthy challenger was to then, forevermore, be the age of Western supremacy. Others looked to the next upcoming contenders. The UK and Europe could not take for granted their status as superpowers, as this club did not necessarily offer lifetime membership, annual dues needed their paying. Even the US understood this.
However, when a nation spent two centuries fighting, uncertain if it would ever ‘win’, it does not know how to live beyond the fight. This sort of anxiety brought in a need to make sure no other could challenge such a supremacy. The Republican Party that claimed to have won the Cold War, needed only to take power, hold onto it and declare a New World Order. Thus, President George H.W. Bush, spoke of the New World Order. In fact, between the summer of 1990 and March 1991, President Bush used the phrase ‘new world order’ at least forty-two times. But was that enough repetitions to make a lie become the truth? Even Bush understood that for a new world order to be sustainable, it needed to be tried and tested. Then came Operation Desert Storm and the First Gulf War. A couple years without the world on the brink demanded that the American warboys stretch their legs. But to what avail? Kuwait was defended, very few casualties were suffered, but a lot of oil was destroyed and Saddam Hussein remained the leader of Iraq. It was hailed a victory, but can that be unequivocally said to be so? Did the conflict really end? Hardly. The Second Gulf War followed. Iraq was destroyed. The War on Terror destroyed Afghanistan and unhinged Pakistan. Had the Cold War actually ended? Hardly. Russia was never completely upgraded from its status as supervillain. And if America was to be the world police, what of their own indiscretions? From Native Americans to non-white racial minorities a lot of unanswered questions remained. The CIA, geopolitical terraformers par excellence, as evident in their handy work in Central and South America, seemed to be defying the new world order regularly. Could all this be justified in the name of the world order?
The fundamental problem is that the new world order was new in how the post-Covid new normal is new. That is to say there is nothing new, neo, nouveau, nova, or nu about it. Its disgustingly familiar. The world order remains as it has always been: the vision of American exceptionalism. Democracy, except where undemocratic means can justify free market neo-liberalism. Peace, except where war can bring about greater peace. Neoliberal economics, except for when the wrong monopoly gets too powerful or on the occasion that the bankers need a hand with cleaning up a global financial mess they made. In the worst of cases, it’s the perpetual extension of the present, in perpetuity, that is, until those most benefited by such a system have their eyes opened up and ask ‘Am I on the right side of history?’ Yet the bar is set. English is the lingua franca, the US dollar is the new standard of wealth, and a move made without the express permission of the US Executive or its military had best prepare to face the consequences for such insubordination.
Aided by ignorance and an absence of imagination, this looks to be the state of things for some time to come. Ravetz suggests we are moving from postnormal science to postnormal times. In fact, the move is complete; and postnormal times comes in to provide an interesting framing for the discussion of world order. Postnormal times allows us to see the compounding of endemic contradictions that chink away at the foundations of our present world order, allowing for chaos and complexity to tear it all down. Yet postnormal times also allows for loops of ignorance to keep the ultimately broken machine running until nothing is left. So, in a way, our world order, which is the American world order, which is a world order of ignorance, is not declining, but evolving. And here is where I place my second act twist.
The West, a monster made in the US of A and Europe, has pulled the great trick of convincing you that it is in decline, or as some have frankly put it, dead. The West has gone beyond death. The West is now immortal. And until we can imagine our way out, we are trapped in its game. And even if the day may come when the US goes the way of Rome or all the nations of Europe sink into the sea, the West will remain, an ouroboros in constant consumption and constant hunger. We wait for the next global alignment, the new, new world order. Shall it be China or India who are the next global superpowers, marinated in hubris and nationalistic juices. Will the Asian Century ever come, or has it come, maybe it is just running a little late? Or even if the monolithic world order succumbs to a decentralised, democratised world of cities and people. We have to ask, has anything actually changed in these scenarios. Or must we take the first step, and when our number is called, we all rise and say ‘I am Spartacus’, ‘I am America’.
The blurring of the lines now warps reality. The US and the USSR differed in approach but sought the same ends. Who is the good guy and who is the bad guy? Its as arbitrary as the difference between terrorist and freedom fighter. Or more appropriately the difference between today’s China and the US, blood-soaked hands with too many internal inconsistencies to be guardians of any international order. Manifest Destiny? Belt and Road Initiative? Quelle est la difference?
James Brooks spells out this absurdity in his analysis of the new doctrine from one of today’s most perplexing international anomalies, France’s President Emmanuel Macron. His Paris Consensus is almost completely indistinguishable from the tired old Washington Consensus and he does not even appear to have the visual acuity to comprehend this. Not surprising of course when we consider Monsieur Le President’s inability to see Muslims outside of an Islamophobic lens. Riding the international acclaim of having said something about our climate crisis – which embarrassingly is all it takes to be a hero of the green cause – Brooks points out Macron’s attempts to usurp the new world order with the new world order, but this time French. And of course, France isn’t the only one playing this game. Such undertones reek of Vote Leave. And the feral nationalism required to build up the arrogance to try to take on the world order, by feeding into the world order, has terrifying consequences. Jasmin Mujanovic exposes how a new wave of Serbian supremacy threatens to awaken old ghosts in the Balkans all in the name of some artificial need to demonstrate a world order. In this instance a Srpski svet, Serbian World.
In attempting to imagine our way out of this labyrinth, it will take more than putting on a new name or speaking words in different languages. Otherwise, any resistance merely feeds into the consumption loop of America’s ‘new’ world order. As I said, this was the failure of postmodernism. And it threatens other fringe thoughts. Key among them are feminist alternatives, LGBT+ alternatives, black alternatives (especially promising, yet equally vulnerable are the new waves of Afrofuturism), indigenous alternatives, and environmental and sustainable alternative strains of thought. Samia Rahman explores one artificial pit hole that threatens to sink any effort at alternative progress: culture wars. Majorities under threat appropriate minority identities to crush any challengers. Rahman puts it beautifully when she said ‘polarisation and ratcheting up extremism is creating false grievances, which cynically exploit people’s fears and their need to locate the enemy that resides in the darkest recesses of their imagination.’ Even the new, new, world of a promised egalitarian utopia that the cybersphere was sold as has fallen to the corruption of the immortal world order. Andrew Brown traces public stoning, a community building exercise that also instils a social order, to its contemporary descendant, the mucky social media arena of trolls, haters, and shamers. In this, perhaps not final, frontier what could have been the ideal of democratic political discourse instead is an open space for screaming, where anonymity erases all responsibility and ideology and identity blur further. Here bully and bullied are indistinguishable and that ultimate contradiction, coming together to be pushed apart, is a well-oiled perpetual motion device. It may appear the only way out, at the moment, is one of the Manifestos of the End as argued by Christopher Jones. And while those manifestos discussed in his article explore new ways in which the world ought to be ordered, perhaps the best solution is the undoing of the very notion of world order itself.
And while this issue has no shortage of anger and frustration, we are left with a modicum of hope. This comes in the form of a challenge and a metaphor. Colin Tudge challenges us to reconsider our aims in order to break from our monstrous world order. He does this by focusing on the economic order of our world, which he shows informs and flows through other orders that structure our complex world. Where, usually, we look to economics to deliver wealth, perhaps even value (note the subjective nature of both concepts), Tudge nudges us to consider a more universal and clear goal. Our mindset should move from capital accumulation to the construction of a sustainable world of compassion and cooperation. His approach is to have us consider our role as humans in an ecological network. He proposes a renaissance of thought driven by a respect for a oneness with nature and planetary harmonic order. Tudge’s proposition partners well with a metaphor put forward by Naomi Foyle.
In a thought-provoking essay, Foyle considers humanity’s relationship with technology and nature as well as mythology and story as we continue navigating through the Covid-19 pandemic. As Zoom and other screen fatigue sets in, and we all long for the freedom to go out into the world, perhaps such metaphors as man as machine, cogs in the system of ongoing capital accumulation brought to you with care by neoliberal economic regurgitation, is really not accurate. Foyle proposes the symbol of the tree. Trees feature prominently throughout various cultural mythologies and the human has a lot more in common with a tree, a fellow living thing, than a computer. And all the more so with recent dendrological research revealing highly social behaviour amongst trees and within their ecosystem, the forest.
Foyle explores the World Tree of Norse mythology, Yggdrasil. This tree is the backbone of the universe and during Ragnarök it is said to convulse, causing earthquakes and floods. Ultimately, Yggdrasil will burn as the universe collapses and the world ends. Many an eschatological story is less about the ending, but more a way to cope with change. These myths are often allegories for seasonal weather changes or even the cycle of life and death. In their cyclical nature lies patterns and repetitions, but I do not think this is to give us comfort in transition, but to ease the shock to the system and prepare us for radical change. After Ragnarök, a handful of second and third generation gods are said to survive along with at least two humans to repopulate. And much as the ashes of vegetation all around the world replenish the soil with nutrients for new life, so too do the ashes of Yggdrasil give way to a regreening of the planet. The story sort of dribbles out at this point, but must we assume that another universe spanning monolithic Yggdrasil will grow in its place? Why not a wisdom forest of many Yggdrasils?
The World order discourse has always been about the next war. Just like ‘disarmament talks’, as an American humourist who used the nom de plume Beachcomber once said, are ‘a series of informal chats about the next war’. We may be heading towards yet another world order involving conflict with China. After subjugating Hong Kong, China is ready to make its move on Taiwan. And anyone who stands in its way, as President Xi Jinping announced during the celebrations marking the centenary of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, ‘would have their heads bashed bloody’.
There is strong temptation for us to take to the forest, axe in hand, while hearing Jagger repeatedly asking us what his name is, in search of that one monolithic tree that is the World Order. But there is hope in the appreciation of disorder, moving from what is to what ought to be, in a dream of La Covivencia, and the power of renewed imagination. By taking to it with an axe in hopes of destroying it, we play into the all-too-familiar Western game of a never-ending cycle of violence and war. Instead of perpetuating the cycle, we need to direct our thought on navigating our way out of it; there’s little point in attempting to kill what has become immortal. As an alternative, why not take away its power, live with it as another element of the ecosystem, and ignore it for its inability to keep up with the brighter, plural, and open order provided in a planetary garden unhindered by unity in disorder. As Odin and the Norns never really died, similarly new scientific theorems push old ones into obscurity. And as we go about cultivating new gardens and forests, we will be able to imagine a world beyond the good guys and the bad guys. Should a grouping of uniformed and overly regimented chaps happen upon our path, hoping to enlist our skills in the name of one Order or another, we won’t fall for the same old tropes.