Disaster Calculus

21. XI 2021

It is only the occasional experience of the extreme that exposes the temperate human region where we can cultivate what we are competent to do. (Peter Sloterdijk)

There is a considerable body of dystopian art and literature that captures our imagination of counterfactual reality corresponding to the history of the world in which dark forces had triumphed in WWII. These visions are generally an extrapolated superposition of various gloomy patches of history adjusted for modern times.

However, the flip side of our imagination, one which deals with a fictional reality where WWII had been completely absent, or the devastation significantly smaller, is practically nonexistent. Nothing in human history could be used to convincingly (re)construct this alternative world. Even if we were to mobilize all our creative forces and transcend the baggage of history and prejudice, we would still inevitably encounter strange mental barriers, psychological resistance, and dead ends.

At the bottom of this defect of symmetry resides the legacy of our historical experience. Good deeds are unpredictable because they are not natural; they don’t arise spontaneously, people commit them impulsively. Evil, on the other hand, acts naturally – we never wonder about evil; we are only surprised if it is not realized. This belief forces us to incorporate appropriate expectations into our thinking process and, with time, these expectations become our second nature and we no longer reflect about them; they constitute the knowledge that doesn’t know itself.

Disaster didactics

In his book Infinite Mobilization Peter Sloterdijk argues that one of the most powerful and robust lessons of modernity is that people need catastrophe because they must be educated and can only be educated by the school of worst possible scenarios. Human functioning and survival are intricately linked to disaster-didactic calculations – only a visual instruction of the worst can usher in a turn for the better[1].

Sloterdijk uses the Three Mile Island nuclear accident as a template around which he develops his argument.

The Three Mile Island Unit 2 reactor, near Middletown, Pa., partially melted down on March 28, 1979. This was the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history. The accident began about 4 a.m. on that day when the plant experienced a failure in the secondary, non-nuclear section of the plant. Either a mechanical or electrical failure prevented the main feedwater pumps from sending water to the steam generators that remove heat from the reactor core. This caused the plant’s turbine-generator and then the reactor itself to automatically shut down. Immediately, the pressure in the primary system began to increase. In order to control that pressure, the pilot-operated relief valve opened. The valve should have closed when the pressure fell to proper levels, but it became stuck open. Instruments in the control room, however, indicated to the plant staff that the valve was closed. As a result, the plant staff was unaware that cooling water in the form of steam was pouring out of the stuck-open valve. As alarms rang and warning lights flashed, the operators did not realize that the plant was experiencing a loss-of-coolant accident.[2]

There is one particular moment in the Three-Mile Island episode, which captures the essence of disaster didactics: As disaster was brewing, there was a palpable sense in the air of the public developing sly sympathy with the explosive substances in the defective reactor, as if those were not representing a physical quantity, but also contained a culturally critical message that deserved to be released[3]. The silent rooting for the explosion was nothing more than an educational hypothesis about the didactic and mind-changing energies that radiate from actually occurring disasters.

Because the big explosion failed to materialize, the Three Mile Island disaster could not reach the level where disaster didactics develops its grim calculation between misfortune and insight can be formed[4]. (That role was fulfilled by Chernobyl about a decade later.) For that reason, this remained only the warning disaster.

When seen from that angle, both 2008 GFC and 2016 US Presidential elections were also just warning disasters – the financial and political Three Mile Island accidents when another faulty “nuclear reactor” threatend, but eventually failed, to melt down. A Chernobyl-type event was averted in both cases, in 2008 by the comprehensive bailout program (augmented with unprecedented monetary policy stimulus) and in 2020 by the Republican debacle in (and out of) the ballot box. And judging by how things have been developing both in the post-2008 times as well as during the last year, we haven’t learned much, if anything at all – the message hasn’t sunk in. By interrupting the course of history and by averting the full-scale catastrophe, we remained deprived of valuable lessons. This hadn’t happened in the 1940s, WWII was “allowed” to develop into a full-blown catastrophe. However, had Adolf Hitler been killed, had the natural course of history been upset and halted in July 1944, we would have had yet another national socialism soon after that, or we’d at least have to defend ourselves from it. Hitler wouldn’t have been defeated; rather his certain victory would have been thwarted. By experiencing the full-scale impact of the war, humanity has learned a valuable lesson, but this knowledge is conflicted with the price tag that came with it and has become a dilemma that never ceases to trouble us.

The addiction to the unbearable

According to Sloterdijk,the key question of disaster-didactics is: How big would a catastrophe need to get before it radiates the universal flash of insight that we are waiting for?[5] This disastercalculus resides at the core of our stifled imagination. The difference between our reality and that without WWII extends beyond better or worse — the entire configuration of the world without WWII would have been unrecognizable by today’s man, as if we would have missed the most important lesson in our education.

Unraveling the causality chain that defines what we call our cultural and historical heritage today could take place along multiple alternative paths. Here is a short menu of things, one of its many possible accounts, of what we would be missing in this counterfactual reality.

Certain concepts like cold war, arms race or nuclear deterrent, simply wouldn’t exist. No Hiroshima, no Yalta and no political East and West. Geopolitical maps would look different. There would be no United Nations, no NATO and no European Union either.

Without another war, the nazification of Germany (which was really a consequence of WWI) and its infantile aggression would turn inwards onto their own people. High inflation and chronic indebtedness would have led to Germany’s imminent financial default and would handicap their economy in the long run. They would be the subject to multidimensional economic and cultural blockades, which, together with desires for excessive military spending, would exhaust their economic potential. Fueled by politically catalyzed incompetence and growing paranoia, Germany would spiral into something akin to the third world country and would be forced to close their borders finding themselves, with time, straddled somewhere between what East Germany was in the 1970s and contemporary North Korea. Adolf Hitler would have probably died of an aneurism at an old age remaining a marginal historical figure of local significance.

It is not unlikely that the Soviets – now a lot more numerous without WWII – would go on minding their own business, but still burdened by Stalin’s shenanigans, remain on a slower, but inevitable, path of self-destruction and eventual dissolution.

In contrast, the rest of the developed European countries which would never have to be liberated by the Soviets would remain on the course of prosperity; they would have an uninterrupted period of growth and resembling, probably, today’s Luxembourg or Switzerland.

Distribution of power would differ significantly. America would have nothing resembling its global presence and influence it has today. Its military budget would be considerably lower. There would be no Berlin Wall, no Bay of Pigs and no Castro; no Korean or Vietnam War either, no arms race, no Manhattan project, and no Sputnik moment. Landing on the Moon would have been dismissed as a frivolous and expensive idea and never attempted.

Kennedy would serve two presidential terms and his family would produce the longest reigning American dynasty, probably occupying top offices to this day. Onasis would remain anonymous outside of Greece. Nixon would have never been a President. There would be no Watergate and the Republican Party would not have to reinvent itself; they would remain a party of the elites and not a populist conglomerate. The right to life would never resurface as a polarizing issue. FOX would be an entertainment network without a political agenda. Twin Towers would still be the most prominent landmarks of the New York City’s skyline. The Civil rights movement would look very different. There would be no 60s as we know them, no hippies and no Charles Manson; 1968 would not happen. There would be no Summer of Love, no Woodstock, and lots of rock anthems from that period would never be written. The world would never see Casablanca, The Deer Hunter, Schindler’s List, Downfall or The Tin Drum.

Without WWII, philosophy, history, social and political sciences, physics and engineering, and our entire culture would have been hopelessly incomplete; they would be like physics without differential calculus, music without Mozart or literature without Dostoyevsky. We don’t even know how to begin to think about that reality. It would be an utterly different cognitive configuration, an anotherhood that eclipses our capacity for imagination – no extrapolation of our previous experiences would be capable of approximating it.

However, as much as we think we would be ready to transcend these obstacles, we remain nevertheless protective of the knowledge instilled by the catastrophe of WWII, unprepared and unwilling to give it up.

Adding disaster to the curriculum of humanity as the last pedagogical tool is a testimony to the fact that the only way that something can be learned is through catastrophe and the force of event. This is a de facto capitulation of Modernity’s method of unforced guidance and listening in favor of learning the hard way[6]. In the pedagogization of disaster – the interplay between misfortune and insight – there is always the lingering question about what didactically sufficient size of the disaster is: How bad the catastrophe has to be for the lesson to have long-lasting value? Well, WWII delivered in that respect.

The aesthetics of disappearance

When it comes to imagining the world without WWII – one that, at a minimum, shouldn’t be nominally worse than the existing one — the dead end of our imagination emerges as a consequence of the centuries old cultural baggage. Our world system and its history have developed mechanisms that inhibit modes of imagination which exclude catastrophes. This is a result of cultural struggles, which spontaneously create conditions that foster this asymmetry and resistance to alternatives as a cognitively more stable configuration. It stands as a reminder that disaster is essential for our existence, that bearable is an island in the ocean of unbearable and the island residents exist at discretion of the ocean[7]. Humanity’s addiction to disaster is a verdict on the failure of the struggle to extend the boundaries of that island of bearable.

This leads naturally to extrapolation of Walter Benjamin’s reflections on humanity. As a result of the blend of historical addiction to catastrophe and its growing self-alienation Western civilization may have reached a point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure and, at the same time, internalize it through an ultimate didactic high as the most valuable lesson to be learned.

[1] Another outstanding book by Peter Sloterdijk that had been written way before its time. First released in Germany in 1989 as Eurotaoismus; Zur Kritik der politische Kinetik and in English translation as Infinite Mobilization in 2020 by Polity Press, the book has a keen contemporary relevance with unparalleled freshness of perspective and depth of insight.

[2] United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission Report: https://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/3mile-isle.html

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] ibid.

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