How Spatial Politics Will Shape The Post-Liberal Order

Matthew Miles/Newport, United Kingdom

A few years ago, I picked up a copy of Jacques Attali’s Histoire de la Modernité from the dusty storage section of the University of British Columbia’s library. I was diving into the world of contemporary French intellectuals and had become recently acquainted with Michel Onfray, Emmanuel Carrère, and Alain Finkielkraut. The French intellectual scene seemed so alive compared to what was on offer in class. The heated televised exchanges, the cliques, the journeys and the personnages of the French scene have no equal in the world—France is one of the few remaining countries in the world with a consistent literary output of unparalleled quality, and the French intellectual still occupies a place of prestige in society. Who was the literary voice of the zeitgeist? The French could point to their Michel Houellebecq (the enfant terrible of French literature as the BBC likes to call him). The Anglosphere offered up J. K. Rowling.

I checked out a couple of books that day, but two authors stood out and followed me for the years to come: Éric Zemmour and Jacques Attali. Zemmour wouldn’t have been possible anywhere in the Anglosphere, where a risk-averse intellectual culture has suffocated any semblance of public debate. Instead of being shut down by mobs and shunned by most of the establishment, the controversial firebrand Zemmour is invited to host a weekly show on national television. He is France’s loudest voice.

He also happens to be an astute journalist and a great student of history. Most of his books are dedicated to the recent and not-so-recent history of his beloved country, and they sell surprisingly well. People need to know and relish their origins and Zemmour has the right set of talents to give the French public what they want.

His books taught me to read and understand the past and gain some footing in the present world. Attali, fortunately, was the right man to pick it up from there. If Zemmour taught me the past, Attali taught me the future.

Attali is the anti-Zemmour. He is universally detested by the French public and by the French readership. He is a Socialist (big S, as in Parti Socialiste) and a man of the establishment. He was there at the side of François Mitterand and once more at the side of Nicolas Sarkozy, as France limped from one humiliation to another. He was the éminence grise who marionetted Emmanuel Macron into politics, only for his marionette to recently burst into flames. Macron was Attali’s last resort for avoiding an insolvent political situation and descending into civil war and chaos. Unfortunately, Macron’s office has been rocked with scandals, his popularity has plummeted, and yellow-vested mobs have taken to the streets, calling for his head.  For all his talents, Attali is divorced entirely from the history and reality of France. Unfortunately for his critics, he has a good reason to be—he is entirely absorbed by the future.

Attali attended the École Polytechnique, France’s top engineering institution, in the early 1960s. He came of age in a world where France was still a colonial power, where the the Soviet Union had cloistered half of Europe behind barbed wire, where Chubby Checker’s “Twist” was taking America by storm. What did a relic of a never-to-return era have to reveal? Nothing but what continues to unfold, day after day. Attali detailed these insights during a 2014 speech at the École Polytechnique:

In thirty years, there will be more Frenchmen than Germans. In forty years, there will be more Turks than Russians. At the end of the century, if demographic tendencies maintain, there will be fewer Chinese than Nigerians (trans.)

Attali decidedly believes in demographics.

There are today 200 million people who reside in a country other than the one they were born in. If you think about it that’s very little spread over 7 billion people…In 25 years, the conservative prediction tend towards 1.2 billion, and not only [will there be migration] from the south to the north, but from the south to the south (trans.)

He then finished his train of thought by adding:

And if we consider climate migrations, which is to say, migration having climate change as its direct cause, numbers begin to vary greatly depending on one’s interest. However, it is estimated that the number is between 1-2 billion added to account for ecological migration (trans.)

Attali’s future is one marked by demographics, migration, and climate change on a scales several order of magnitudes greater than what we have experienced.

It is common practice when making predictions to draw up hypothetical scenarios. In terms of future patterns of global migration, the major patterns depend on the dynamic between the West and Asia. A standard example is the methodology used by Nikola Sander, Guy Abel, and Fernando Riosmena in World Population and Human Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Their approach resorts to two possible scenarios to forecast migration until 2060:

The ‘rise of the east’ (referred to as RE scenario) scenario assumes economic stagnation in Europe and North America, resulting in restrictive migration policies. South and South East Asia become increasingly attractive destinations, resulting in a shift in global migration patterns. The ‘intensifying global competition’ scenario (referred to as IGC scenario) assumes dynamic economic growth and social development, resulting in growing competition among governments and the private sector for (skilled) labour and natural resources, as well as between the traditional activities of agriculture and mining and industry, residential development and recreational activities. Economic growth in the developing world contributes towards rising levels of global mobility, which is paralleled by liberal immigration policies in the more developed world.

Forecasts by Thu Hien Dao, Frédéric Docquier, Mathilde Maurel, and Pierre Schaus chart migration patterns where the percentage of people under transit to world population in 2100 is 4% in the RE scenario and 6% in the IGC scenario.

That is the silhouette of the world of tomorrow. Despite the scale of the challenges that may prove to be too much, we must not forget we are dealing with the consequences of success. Yes, economic liberalization and modernization has succeeded. Critics can quibble over causality, but the results are not up for discussion—one billion fellow human beings dragged out of poverty in just 20 years.

I live in a city which had donkey drawn carriages on the streets 20 years ago. I now regularly take line 2 of the Shanghai subway (perhaps the best run subway in the world) at rush hour without breaking a sweat. I’ve personally seen, from up close, the consequences of this success. I’ve had the privilege of working with young people from a peripheral Pakistan, which was subject to relentless bombings until a few years ago, and from various African nations which were counted among the poorest in the world. They are tireless, they are motivated, and they are absolutely richer than they could have imagined. The percentage of the world population that lives under extreme poverty has decreased to 10.7% from 17.8% in 20 years; it’s easy to dismiss as a just a number, but these are very real people we’re talking about—people who grew up in a world of want and insecurity and who are now patronizing the most chic restaurants of Shanghai. That’s success.

The demographic unrest that is slowly building, and sometimes not so slowly, is nothing more than the consequence of success. In 1990, Europe and Africa had the same population; today the latter stands at 1 billion. This is the result of increasing food security, access to modern medicine, and falling infant mortality, urbanization, and all the good things that came with economic liberalization and modernization in Africa. This phenomenon has also occurred in Pakistan, Indonesia, India, Thailand, and Vietnam, which are the Asian counterparts of the African population boom.

Attali also understands the consequences of success:

The coupling of markets/democracy is virtuous. We observe that the market requires democracy and that markets presuppose innovation, the right to create, the right to change your mind…The first contradiction is that the market is, by its very nature, without borders…While democracy is, by its very nature, local. It presupposes a territory and borders and so we find ourselves in contradiction between a market which is global and a rule of law, democratic where possible but if not,  at least national…Globalization is Somalization [the erasure of the rule of law] at a planetary scale…Both democracy and the market are founded upon a single value, which is individual liberty. What is individual liberty?…Individual liberty is the right to change your mind, which in turn creates a precarity in relations and a precarity in contracts. We can even say that the apologia of individual liberty is the apologia of disloyalty…We are in the process of witnessing our societies became nothing more than aggregations of disloyal mercenaries – no society can durably be a society of disloyal mercenaries (trans.)

Chronopolitics and Khorapolitics

Attali lays bare the inherent contradictions of the globalist project. He gives a chilling warning particularly to his own camp, which holds to chronopolitics, that is, the belief that the present is a period of transition. When political parties focus on mobilizing newly-settled populations against their historic bases because the demographic wind is with them, or abandon the social mores of previous generations because they claim technology has made them obsolete, they are engaging in chronopolitics.

A pervasive view exists in liberalism that time is on its side, that movement is on its side, that openness is on its side. The ethos of social liberalism rests on the double pillars of the free movement of capital and the free movement of people, which are indeed the very basis of the European federal experiment. But Attali’s warning is a stern reminder that a society cannot be sustained by “disloyal mercenaries.” Populations which are the product of movement and whose loyalty belongs to the highest bidder (the bid being the provision of highest living standard) do not have any binding loyalties to the actors or institutions guaranteeing that freedom of movement. The social results of chronopolitics undermine the very mechanisms which make it possible.

Attali, however, does not propose an alternative to the problems posed by chronopolitics. He merely suggests that we can manage the externalities of markets and democracies. For Attali, time is an accelerating process whose momentum increases exponentially—more people, more resources, faster technology and faster movement—in a potentially dangerous trajectory that needs to be adjusted in the present moment.

However, the crises we have discussed are not purely temporal. The Cold War era was in many ways a chronopolitical one. Both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were operating under ideologies that saw themselves as stages in the development of mankind. This isn’t to deny that the battle was also geopolitical. But we should distinguish between geopolitics—competition between states—and what precisely those states are battling for in terms of their ideological motivations and values. Ultimately, neither liberal democratic capitalism, nor Soviet communism could permit the other to last indefinitely. There was an ideological battle being fought alongside inter-state competition, and this was a battle for the future.

But the Cold War is over. Increasingly, the crises faced by states are not about how to monopolize the future of humanity, but how to secure and optimize the spaces under their control. The massive population movements discussed earlier will not be resolved by imposing some given end-state across populations. In fact, such an approach has been the direct cause of the most immediate manifestations of this crisis. Libya and Syria were once spaces where populations and resources were governed and development was occurring. What they lacked was a liberal democratic system approved by the Western order. Now they have neither. Similarly, the impacts of a changing climate will both be faced and resolved on a spatial level. The reordering of supply chains in energy and agriculture, as well as mapping of and adaptation toward new and sometimes extreme weather patterns, are only possible through coordination across great spaces: regions, continents, hemispheres.

In other words, political competition is likely to become increasingly spatial. The question is whether geopolitical players will adapt their governing worldviews to this reality.

Chronopolitics has anything but a monopoly on political thought. In a previous article, I discussed how the spatial dimensions of politics underpinned previous civilizations, and established the historical basis in land exploitation for the development of the bourgeois state. If the politics of space has proven itself to be a mighty force in the past, then it might well again become an alternative to the politics of time.

This might be dubbed khorapolitics. Chronopolitics and khorapolitics begin in the same place—that technological development, though itself often a consequence of politics, generates the social conditions to which politics responds. However, the modern Western approach has generally been to consider technological development as a form of historical progress. This is by no means a given across societies. The optimal exploitation of spatial resources is to khorapolitics what economies of scale, material, political, or otherwise, are to chronopolitics. In a global environment where competition is increasingly related to control and use of space, explicitly spatial categories of political thought seem likely to arise.

The Chinese have begun to do this already. For example, besides its central and explicit focus on trade routes and spaces, Belt and Road’s ideological sheen focuses on the “community of common destiny” idea and increasing cooperation in the use of resources. In Africa, China’s priority has been investment in strategically vital cities such as Addis Ababa and Lagos, rather than promoting universal arcs of political development. But China is by no means alone in this pattern. Russian geopolitics on its frontiers, European efforts to secure the Mediterranean, and even the Trump administration’s focus on supply chains and trade deficits have all privileged strategies of spatial dominance over ideological supremacy. There is no reason to think this trend will reverse itself.

The method of chronopolitics is to note the heterogeneity of techne (methods and expertise) over time and the scale of interaction which techne facilitates—no conscript armies without food production at scale, no democracy without conscript armies, no rights without democracy, no progressive movement without rights. The progression through time is clear. Political legitimacy under chronopolitics is grounded in a being on the right side of progress and thus locked in a cycle of constant dépassement of a previous material reality: slavery is immoral because wage labor is the necessary input for industrial output. Legal equality between the sexes is moral because domestic duties have now been automated and capital requires a larger workforce. Marriage strictly defined for the purpose of procreation and child rearing can be deprioritized because the service economy no longer requires large functional families. Chronopolitics uses technical possibility as justification for its moral developments. This is the politics of disloyalty Attali was commenting on.

Moreover, chronopolitics sees it as not just possible but also necessary to sever all ties with its earlier incarnations. The progressives of a previous age pioneered Canada’s residential school system, declaring that they would “make the savage like us through education.” The progressives of our age decry the same system. The same can be said of French colonialism, whose pioneers were inspired by the humanist ideas of extending technical progress to all races of man, thus elevating and equalizing them. Progressives of our age now decry it as the greatest injustice. Chronopolitics is the ephemeral politics of the now.

Just as previous eras of human history were shaped by the management of land, new spatial technologies have become increasingly politically relevant, opening up the possibility for a 21st century revival of khorapolitical thought on a global scale. As with all major technological developments, the incentive is for political elites to use new technology to maintain their own power and out-compete rivals. However, as we have seen, current political battles seem to be favoring a move away from chronopolitical norms precisely because these battles are spatial in nature. Spatial technologies require political actors to strategize and take on parameters for victory which are inherently khorapolitical.

Those of us involved in the development of space management technologies are beginning to pierce the shape of these new technological horizons. AR and VR technologies, coupled with locally sourced and sustainable pre-fab edifices, will allow for faster iterations when optimizing economic activity of a space or when implementing relocation of people and resources. The latter will be vital when responding to dangerous changes in climate patterns. Increasing urbanization and the data generated by individuals and industries will allow competent authorities to more accurately predict population growth patterns in urban areas. This will allow for the design of transit around optimal patterns to minimize commute times.

Such capabilities will not only empower traditional urban authorities, but also allow companies to meet emission targets by spreading their teams across nodes in the city. The scattering of the workforce across the city implies a kind of urban development which is divergent in its effects from the kind experienced by greatest global cities. The current type of urban development is characterized by the effects of the flight of the working class to smaller townships, of the concentration of wealth and employment in specific neighborhoods in the city, and of the concentration of spending power and entertainment in certain centers. This creates cultural deserts in the periphery and unsustainable increases in the cost of housing in certain parts of the city.

Another use of novel technologies is the prediction of desertification and reforestation patterns, enabling a shift to sustainable economic activities in the primary sector of the economy. The Great Green Wall initiative to stop the desertification of the Gobi desert through mass reforestation launched by the Chinese government is a current example. Here, the key application of prediction technologies is in managing ecological pressures to the primary sector and to populations engaged in the sector, and thus under increasing ecological strain, namely in sub-Saharan Africa. These are also the populations most susceptible to becoming climate migrants. Advanced prediction methods will be used to identify optimal placement for breaker forests, and use of drone technology will allow far more precise and far more aerial seeding efforts. The ability to inexpensively adapt crops to changes in soil will completely change the direction of primary sector industries and reduce the cost of the externalities that have to be managed in the global south.

Finally, predicting disruptions in key national industries will allow active governments to diversify and decentralize centers of economic activity, linking workers together or retraining them via more robust communication technologies. This can reduce the need for international or sub-national skilled immigration, and consequently the associated financial and human costs, in markets and regions where certain skills are sparse. Likewise, space management technologies at the legal and financial level will let competent authorities track the movement of capital and squash flows of capital generated by illegal and criminal activities, which are laundered through the acquisition of prime housing stock in the developed world and the acquisition of farmland in the global south, thus ensuring transparency and accountability, and also securing trust from the rooted sections of the populace in the developments of their own cities, townships, and villages.

All of these technological developments allow societies to optimize space in ways conducive to sustainable cultural life. However, they can only be successfully used by actors rooted in their own spatial jurisdiction. Whether through technologically-assisted mass reforestation or the relocation of millions of climate migrants into livable pre-fab housing, it is impossible to imagine any of the necessary technical milestones being reached by Atalli’s “disloyal mercenaries,” permanently jumping around from one chic liberal metropolis to another. The future cannot be outsourced.

These aren’t short, six month projects. In fact, these projects are time independent, as their success or failure will get imprinted into the very rocks. The use of these technologies demands that everyone involved, from the khorapolitical “responsibles” down to the individual economic actors, have skin in the game. These technical solutions maximize for a healthy indigeneity across space.

But they also create new forms of competition, and this is the mechanism which drives political actors toward khorapolitical forms of thought. Great powers are already beginning to use these technologies. Since these technological trends are only progressing, Chinese greening efforts and U.S. concerns about the directions of supply lines are only the start of this political battle. Due to the spatial nature of these technologies, the ability to think in terms of a spatial politics is an advantage. Combine this with the fact that a spatial politics, independent of techne, is already part of the tradition of numerous great powers—Russia and China being the most prominent—and it becomes probable that khorapolitics increasingly underpins both the means and the ends of victory.

As a new paradigm of political decision-making, khorapolitical thought can harness new spatial technologies to deal with the effects of mass global migration, demographic shifts, and climate change. The continued application and development of spatial technologies will grant significant political opportunities for those capable of exploiting these technologies. However, this requires a fundamental shift in how those with power think and operate, particularly in the Western world, given deep commitments to chronopolitics. If this shift does not occur at the top, it seems unlikely that ambitious elements will fail to learn the lessons and act on them. In this scenario, new technological realities invite a new spatially-oriented elite to seize the reins of power from their chronopolitical predecessors.

Unlike chronopolitics, the khorapolitical methodology is no longer focused on the heterogeneity of techne across time frames. Instead, it observes the heterogeneity of techne across space. In khorapolitics, legitimacy stems from the right and purposeful management of space. It is a politics of constancy, as topography is close to eternal. The rocks are millions of years old, and the water that erodes them was present at the planet’s formation. The removal of the element of time as the decisive factor removes the justification for arbitrary changes of mind—space is correctly and optimally used, or it isn’t. If resources are wasted, valuable land is misused, or territories fall outside of control, these may be permanently sunk costs. This places a limitation on both the individual liberty underpinning democratic institutions and the individual liberty presupposed in market mechanisms. Decisions are indeed binding across the generations, as the generations are the product of space and not of time.

Heterogeneity of techne is a natural reality—the countryside is exploited in a spatial manner, while the burgh is exploited and organized according to its spatial principles (especially thinking back to the medieval European town which was built around the marketplace and the cathedral in accordance with the dominant khorapolitics of the millennium). Khorapolitics is much more than the freezing of time; it is the adaption of techne to spatiality on the level of political thought and as a tool of political actors. I will preempt the critics by returning to the example of the Tigris and the Euphrates. The Babylonians and the Assyrians are no longer around, and a new ethnogenesis has given birth to the Iraqis and Kurds—yet the economic exploitation of the space is organized around the flooding of the rivers. In fact, in many ways the villages of Iraq today bear an unmistakable resemblance to those of the ancient Near East, and even certain technologies such as quffa, a round straw canoe, are still around.

What about a horizon of 2030, or 2060, or 2100? The rise of legitimate and competent khorapolitical elites requires an understanding of the significance of techne to land organization and management. This understanding is essential if we are to resolve the aforementioned crises faced by both the liberal international order and its rivals: demographic shift in the global south, mass migration, and climate change. Moreover, such an elite has the opportunity to surpass the logic and constraints of chronopolitics on the ideological level. The linking of political legitimacy to appropriate levels of “progress” or development is inherently chronopolitical. The optimal use of spatiality invites the users to become something more and invites the possibility of creating what the Greeks termed an oikos: a dwelling, a home, a true place of belonging.

Thus, khorapolitics allows for the transcendence of a solely economic and utilitarian status, a status which underpins the liberal international order’s conception of human societies. Instead, it allows for these societies to ascend to the state of dwellers. In doing so, it resolves the ever-present destructive chronopolitical tenet which is the inconstancy of loyalties. What liberalism has required of its elites so far is to forcibly remove obstacles to the movement of capital, goods, and people. This has been a spectacular success.

Yet the same intensity of thought and degree of organization are insufficient when it comes to solving the problems they themselves have created. Dealing with the consequences of success demands that we go beyond mere guarantees of functioning markets and the minimal political demands this requires. The unique material circumstances which make khorapolitics possible also demand that our elites act as commanders of market power, as creators and stewards of the oikos.

Avetis Muradyan is an entrepreneur and startup CTO based in Shanghai and Vancouver. He is a graduate of the University of British Columbia.