The mood, to put it bluntly, is bleak. Vladimir Putin’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine marches into yet another month. Thousands have been killed in the conflict and millions more have been displaced. The rising threat of nuclear catastrophe posed by Russian military action has led scientists to place the infamous doomsday clock at ninety seconds until twelve—the closest it has ever been to midnight. Nuclear destruction, of course, is just one of many threats to our existence, something the growing number of experts on so-called existential risk never cease to remind us. Every day reports come in telling us that the window for acting on climate change is closing. Global temperatures continue to rise towards the 1.5-degree threshold, after which drought, starvation, and geopolitical breakdown are all but certain. New technology, meanwhile, has soured the mood of even the most sanguine optimists. After the release of ChatGTP to the public, tech heavyweights including Steve Wozniak and Elon Musk signed a letter urging a six month pause on AI-research, citing the possibility of catastrophic consequences resulting from the development of a general artificial intelligence.
In the face of so many threats to the continuation of human life, the U.S. president Joe Biden nevertheless urged hope and optimism in his annual State of the Union Speech. Meanwhile, the Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, has declared war on progressive ‘woke ideology,’ targeting Disney World’s tax-exempt status as a semi-autonomous entity. Disneyworld, the “happiest place on earth” that once served as an allegory for postmodern optimism and techno-culture, has become a battleground in the escalating confrontation between global capital and reactionary nationalism. But are Disney or fascism our only choices? Must we decide now between the unfounded belief in progress or turn to a cynical realism that is little more than a naked will to power?
This choice was implicitly at the heart of Carl Schmitt’s statement that “one can say that Hegel died” upon Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany in 1933. Hegel, the perennial optimist of history and reason, looked painfully naïve in the face of real political power. But what if there were a different, lesser-known Hegel who might be more attuned to this current mood of despair, of bleakness, so carefully described by Eva Horn?[i] Philosophy has traditionally presented a choice between two attitudes towards reason and history: on the one hand, there is the optimism of Hegel. On the other hand, there is the pessimism of Hegel’s nineteenth century rival, Schopenhauer. When Schopenhauer, for whom to live was to suffer, scheduled his lectures at the same time as Hegel’s at the University of Berlin, the die was cast. People seem to prefer optimism over pessimism, Biden over Trump (or DeSantis), joy over suffering. Students flocked to Hegel’s course, while Schopenhauer, left with a small handful of students, left academia for good. But what if Hegel, that supposed optimist of progress and reason, could actually shed a new light on the dire conditions of our present? What if Hegel looked beyond the optimism-pessimism divide that seems to define both the history of philosophy and our political attitudes?
Hegel the Cynic?
A reconsideration of historical progress has been long in the making. While the end-of-history thesis carefully articulated by Alexandre Kojève in his 1947 Introduction to the Reading of Hegel appeared to take the form of a prophecy after the fall of the Soviet Union, some of the most optimistic of liberal thinkers have now been prompted to reconsider the widely held view that history came to an end during the last decade of the twentieth century. After Obama came Trump, just as Brexit seemed to follow naturally from the founding of the EU in Europe. In 2022, the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro ran for reelection with the slogan “Brazil above everything, God above everyone.” Similar slogans have been used by rightwing figures in India (Narendra Modi), Turkey (Tayyip Erdogan), and elsewhere. Francis Fukuyama, the author of The End of History and the Last Man, has been forced to revise his hypothesis that the marriage of liberal democracy and global markets brought an end to violent nationalism and ideological conflicts that defined much of the last century. But what is history, for Hegel, if not the triumph of reason for Spirit?
While the liberal idea of progress may look like a readymade tool ideal for pushing back against the resurgence of reactionary nationalism, the linear model of history on which it rests is unable to account for the general feeling of impending catastrophe that is everywhere around us. In order to account for the unaccountable possibility (dare we say, probability?) of human extinction, which is, after all what we are really talking about when we discuss things like nuclear war, climate change, or a general artificial intelligence, we must start to think beyond linear models of progress. Only when we begin to appreciate how such a planetary catastrophe would have “the form of a loop in which past and future mutually determine each other,” as philosopher-doomsayer Jean Pierre Dupuy describes it, can we begin to consider ways of avoiding what seems both unavoidable and unimaginable in the current moment.[ii] In the penultimate paragraph of the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel himself surprisingly reflects on this possibility. Hegel, the perennial optimist, outlines a scenario of potential failure for the development of history, a future moment in which Spirit accepts its own defeat: “After a while, some works are provided with a world of their own, whereas for some others, after a certain period of time, there is simply no posterity at all.” What if history itself becomes one such work, a book collecting dust in an archive with nobody left to read it? What if the Phenomenology does not just present a cosmic history of human emergence, but contains an obscured attempt to warn us about the possibility of our extinction?
Moore’s Law: Optimism and the Spirit of Speculation
History, for Hegel, is comprised of attempts to understand and shape the world, a process he refers to as ‘determinate negation.’ In order to find lasting truths, we must first question the givenness of our own experience. The Sun, Galileo realizes, does not move around the Earth. It is our own planet that revolves around the Sun. A base form of optimism seems essential for such accounts of who we are. When we find consistency and regularity, we begin to sense that we have grasped something important, even essential, about the world. We rely on these experiences to build cities and plan for the future. We start to speculate and even hope, using the past as a guide. But hope, to call once more on Dupuy, may provide the least reliable picture of the state of things in a time of looming catastrophe. The end of history, when understood as the end of our species, cannot be reduced to a matter of existential risk or calculation. Our own extinction is not another ‘known unknown.’ It is wholly unimaginable. What happens to determinate negation in such a moment? Does Spirit continue to function?
To answer these questions, we must understand the relationship between determinate negation and alienation, a relationship which crystallizes for Hegel (as for Marx) around the issue of labor in the making of history. Let’s turn to an example—the rise and fall of optimism about what technologists refer to as Moore’s Law. Coined by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, the term describes the trend of exponential growth in computing power that has spurned the meteoric growth of the digital economy over the past half-century. As the number of transistors in an integrated circuit has doubled nearly every two years from the 1950s onward, Moore’s law seems to present a material explanation for the economic and political expansion of the digital economy. Indeed, firms such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook have grown at an alarming rate partly due to this exponential increase in computing power. But Moore’s law, as Moore himself never failed to remind, does little more than provide a thin description of the past. It does not aim to be a tool for diagnosis or prediction. In recent years, the upward trend in computational power has begun slowing, leading investors and futurists to panic and speculate on the possibility of creating wholly nonmaterial forms of value. This is where digital assets like NFTs and cryptocurrency enter the scene, leaving the materialist pretense of Moore’s Law behind.
In March 2021, a relatively unknown blockchain firm called Injective Protocol bought a Banksy print with the audacious title “Morons (White).” The print depicted, of all things, an art auction at Christie’s. We see an auctioneer pointing the attention of auction-goers towards a nondescript painting of a female figure. To the left of the podium, we see a white canvas that is ignored by the crowd. On it, we read the words: “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU MORONS ACTUALLY BUY THIS SHIT.” After buying the print for $95,000, a member of Injective Protocol destroyed the work in an online publicity stunt. A video soon went viral of a masked man introducing the work (only forgetting to mention the second part of the title, white) before setting fire to the print with a lighter. As if this were all part of a poorly written sketch, the firm created an NFT of the video depicting the burning. It was sold for $380,000, four times the initial investment.
The irony and absurdity—Hegel would say false immediacy—of such attempts to create nonmaterial forms of value became clear in the aftermath of the NFT crash in 2022. The optimism of investors quickly faded as the market for NFTs shriveled from $17 billion to less than $466 million in a matter of months. While the majority of economists blamed a lack of regulatory oversight for this market’s sudden rise and fall, some libertarian ideologues even blamed regulators for supposedly conspiring against the dream of a monetary currency unattached to any nation-state. What is missing in both stories, however, is not a hidden law of technological development. In order to understand such forms of value creation, we must turn to the role played by workers in the digital economy. The ongoing existence of alienated labor in contemporary capital is highlighted, among other places, in a film by the artist-philosopher Hito Steyerl. Taking as its subject the human and environmental costs of the digital economy, Steyerl’s work turns to the lives of crypto miners in rural Kazakhstan and elsewhere. Driven by precarious and often desperate conditions, these workers ultimately produce the type of product that Hegel feared most: a work without any progeny, existing in no possible relation to a human future.
Burning or Sublation? Pessimism in the Last Generation
The knowledge to be gained through determinate negation becomes a matter of life or death when it is used to confront our own species’ possible extinction. How can we more fully understand this implicit connection that arises between alienation and extinction? Alongside growing fears over the existential risk associated with the development of AI, a growing number of programmers have begun to sense their livelihoods threatened by the ability of automated systems like ChatGTP to write code. The capitalist chicken of fetishizing new technology may yet come home to roost, as the anxiety over automation described by Marx in the Grundrisse is now felt even among tech workers in Silicon Valley. Scenarios for artificial intelligence, however, pale in comparison to the near certainty of climate collapse. So let us turn away from the relatively privileged workers of Silicon Valley and to the young activists who have taken to calling themselves part of the “last generation.”
After the 2018 release of an award-winning documentary on young climate activists in the Marshal Islands by PBS titled “The Last Generation,” a number of people in Germany, Italy, and England, began referring to themselves by this name. They first stopped traffic and targeted critical infrastructure to raise awareness of the lack of political action on the climate. After failing to generate much attention, these groups soon turned to the forms of protest with which they are now most readily associated: throwing food at famous paintings. In October 2022, two members of the “letzte Generation” in Germany threw mashed potatoes at Monet’s “Les Meules” at the Museum Barberini before gluing themselves to the wall. On November 4th, members of the Ultima Generazione in Italy threw pea soup at Van Gogh’s “The Sower.” One of the participants in the protest at the Barberini, a 25-year-old activist named Mirjam Hermann drives the point home. “Do you know what I am scared of?” she asks a group of reporters. “I am scared of the fact that science says that in 2050 we will not be able to feed our families. Do we need to throw mashed potatoes at a painting for you to listen?”
The actions of these young people gained almost exclusively negative attention from the national and international press. They led to criminal charges and condemnation from across the political spectrum. The protest in Potsdam was even branded an act of cultural terrorism, suggesting it was an attack on an otherwise well-ordered civil society (and maybe even an affront to the state itself). But shouldn’t the rapid rise of crypto markets and the integration of crypto art into mainstream curatorial practices not force us to rethink the forms of immediacy which mask vast amounts of property relations, carbon extraction, and labor for the artworld, technology, and the world as such to carry on in its present form?
A Dialectics of the Anthropocene
Perhaps we can learn something today from Hegel’s uncharacteristic pessimism in the Preface to the Phenomenology. When we carefully consider what he means by the creation of a work without progeny, we might be reminded that the entire history of our species may itself become one such work. This despairing mood appears remarkably similar to Theodor Adorno’s mid-century critique of Hegel. Instead of the truth becoming whole, as it should for Hegel, it is the whole that becomes the untruth of history, for Adorno. Reason does not complete its task but exhausts itself in the process of self-development. In contrast to Adorno’s negative dialectics, however, in which the optimism towards reason cultivated by the Enlightenment culminates in the barbarism of the Holocaust, Spirit must now face the imminent threat of its own extinction. This new shape of history presents what we might call a Dialectics of the Anthropocene, rather than of the Enlightenment. Determinate negation must now start to perform the work of a very particular concept of which we are being made increasingly aware: extinction. Working on and as extinction at the end of the historical moment we have taken to calling the Anthropocene, determinate negation demands that we start thinking beyond liberal optimism and reactionary pessimism in order to find meaningful ways to survive in the future. And the future, as the last generation reminds us, is definitely coming.
[i] “The bleak underlying feeling today is that the continuation of the present will inevitably lead to a radical break or collapse.” Eva Horn. The Future as Catastrophe: Imagining Disaster in the Modern Age. Translated by Valentine Pakis. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.
[ii] Jean-Pierre Dupuy. How to Think About Catastrophe: Toward a Theory of Enlightened Doomsaying. Translated by M. B. DeBevoise and Mark R. Ansprach. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 2022.