To engage effectively in the work of just transitions requires we understand the political contexts in which that work must take place. A key component of our present political context is the rise of political extremism. Climate politics weaves in and out of the rhetoric of extremism, and notably, both extremists and climate activists often use the same temporal-rhetorical frame: that of apocalyptic. My project aims to illuminate the role apocalyptic rhetoric plays in the public space contested by extremists and climate activists. To do so, I will deepen the work on legitimacy and temporal-rhetorical framing begun in my 2019 book Out of Joint: Power, Crisis and the Rhetoric of Time. There, I treated apocalyptic as similar in kind to other temporal frames like progress, grand cyclicality, and primitivism. But since the book’s publication, it has become apparent that apocalyptic is distinct. By developing a political theory of apocalyptic politics generally, how it works, and when it doesn’t, I hope to illuminate this volatile and globally prominent element of climate politics.
To my knowledge, there exists no comprehensive political theory of apocalypticism. Having spent the past year soaking in apocalyptic rhetoric and case studies of apocalyptic politics, I will next develop and plausibility test the hypothesis that apocalyptics manifest a chaos/order paradox that sits at the foundation of communal life. Normally, order, including temporal order, facilitates freedom as meaningful constraint. Freedom needs order, but ordering constraints, as determinate boundaries, are (to follow Spinoza) sometimes painful negations. Chaos, on this understanding, is synonymous with infinite possibility, and thus infinite freedom, with the caveat that this freedom can do nothing lest, in acting, the agent become determinate and create determinations in the world. If all determination is constraint, then constraint is the necessary condition of meaning. This abstract tension can cause concrete suffering, and communal life is always contending with its consequences. While most communal narratives use temporalities that enable a sense of freedom and meaning in constraint, that is, while most communal narratives work to manage this paradox, apocalyptics uniquely – if fallaciously - presume to resolve it. Radical freedom becomes synchronous with the extreme cognitive and, often, socio-political regimentation apocalyptic movements create. Super-constraint is recast as super-freedom. Climate activists interchange with anarchists and anti-capitalists and say “Another end is possible”. By contrast, politics, including climate politics, understood through progressive or grand-cyclical lenses invite us to rebalance, not sublate, order. That is, utopian apocalyptics offer the freedom of complete subjection for those who cannot abide the order/chaos tension. While for those – normally a majority - who live in relative comfort with this tension, the threat of even dystopian apocalyptics is simply inconceivable, except through carefully curated abstract imaginaries.
While the thrust of the project is philosophical, this work is problem driven, and will be informed throughout by diverse primary and secondary empirical case materials, and by insights from work in neighbouring empirical fields. This political theory of apocalyptics could facilitate more effective engagement in the contested space of climate politics. The temporal lens may not only diagnose, but help prescribe more effective rhetorical strategies to promote climate action. This work would also deepen and refine our understanding of political temporality and rhetoric, while inviting reflection on oft-ignored political emotions like loneliness, shame, and boredom.