Review: The Exhausted of the Earth

by Gregory Lebens-Higgins

Ajay Singh Chaudhary’s The Exhausted of the Earth: Politics in a Burning World (Repeater Books, 2024) comes at a much needed time. The world is now in an era of unprecedented man-made climate change. Meanwhile, socialism is finding a renewed strength in international politics, and confronting critical questions of strategy in coalescing its power. Chaudhary presents both the gravity of the moment, and a path forward.

Evidenced by record-breaking temperatures and climate-driven natural disasters, the fact of climate change is becoming increasingly undeniable. Although belief in climate change has often been the barometer for environmental political progress, this mere “acknowledgement” is not enough, Chaudhary argues. Seeking to take advantage of the situation, “right-wing climate realists” are fully aware of the coming catastrophe, but stand to gain from the concentration, preservation, and enhancement of their existing political and economic power.

“We’re not in this together,” says Chaudhary. Both reinforcing and reforming existing class structures, climate change is ultimately “about power.” Its winners and losers shape the global bourgeoisie and proletariat. For the bourgeoisie, climate security presents an investment opportunity as technologies of migrant detention, surveillance, and expulsion develop to deal with the regime’s growing underclass. They are given privileged access to the increasingly privatized emergency responses, insurance, and funding necessary to survive climate change. A matrix of private islands and penthouses from which they can hop by private jet or helicopter further insulates these “right-wing climate realists” from the rising waters.

Chaudhary conceptualizes a new international proletariat connected through nodes along a global “extractive circuit.” These peoples are designated as expendable, disposable. “At every node in the circuit there are two simultaneous and related phenomena: value extraction and nodal exhaustion.” Life today is an ever expanding cycle of intensified work and increasing consumption. Drawing on Fanon, whose colonized man “perceives life . . . as a permanent struggle against omni present death,” colonization has returned to the mainland under climate change regimes and is replicating in an ever-present race to not be among the expendable. 

Against this intensification, there is a cultural celebration of “resilience.” Putting in the extra hours, doing the hard work, suppressing stress, and self-reproducing to return to work the next day, is sold as the way to get ahead. But resilience is a management strategy and apology for the status quo, says Chaudhary. “Attachment to the ideal of resilience only maintains a world which demands it.” Instead of getting ahead, workers are on a stationary treadmill to keep producing profit for capital. What the situation demands is “not resilience but rebellion.” 

These “Exhausted of the earth” allow us to think about the outlines of a new revolutionary class outside of the traditional, and out-of-date, vulgar-Marxist depiction of Victorian factory workers. The revolutionary potential of the Exhausted exists in “affective aspects of class antagonism” (Lauren Berlant), or “infrastructures of feeling” (Ruth Wilson Gilmore). Resentment at our exhaustion will prod us into action, at first individually, then as collective sentiment. À la Fanon, Chaudhary predicts spontaneous outbreaks from global exhaustion. Then, this contagious stress will ripple through the nodes of extraction, creating a global protest movement. It is the role of socialists to organize and shape this energy into a coherent program. 

This path for green revolution is suggested in favor of what Chaudhary identifies as the “climate Lysenkoism” of the left. This is “a broad range of self-ascribed ‘left’ and ‘Marxist’ perspectives that subordinate both natural and historical realities to a quasi-mystical technophilia and an ahistoric romance of the mid-twentieth century Northern nationalist welfare state.” Salvation, for these theorists, depends on climate technology “that is always just about to break through.” But as Chaudhary details, the limits of these technologies do not provide any realistic expectation they can be scaled to divert from the worst of climate catastrophe. In the meantime, it remains business as usual; a preservation of the status quo.

Part of the value of Chaudhary’s work comes from its openness to a degree of utopianism that shows what “might” be. This provides the image of a positive program to fight for, rather than a negative program of climate doomerism. The project of left-wing climate realism, says Chaudhary, is “to carve out a sustainable global human ecological niche.” To do this, we must present mass climate adaptation and mitigation as something better. This is in opposition to strains of degrowth that offer a diminished standard of life—perhaps not a unifying message.

A high standard of living does not have to rely on the same disposable consumption that is currently valued. Chaudhary’s utopia borrows from ancient climate technologies to demonstrate lower-energy options for comfort. Architectural cooling techniques that have been in existence for thousands of years serve as a preferential alternative to noisy and power-hungry air conditioners. Although Chaudhary presents an attractive glimpse of his utopia, he avoids an overly detailed description of the transformed world. In this way, Chaudhary steers clear of the “utopian socialism” whose blueprints are disconnected from the material conditions of society and wherein the “historically created conditions of emancipation” are to yield to their “fantastic ones,” as decried by Marx and Engles in The Communist Manifesto

But this lack of detail also makes it hard to grasp concrete steps to escape our current situation. This is one area where Chaudhary leaves the reader wanting more. Although Chaudhary’s “minor paradise of a sustainable niche,” (captured in projects like the “Farming Kindergarten” in Đồng Nai, Vietnam), is evocative, it is difficult to get the sense of how these projects will scale. This solution is also a technological one, although perhaps employed under differing conditions than those of the growth-oriented “climate Lysenkoists” with whom he disagrees. 

Readers are also devoid of a roadmap to turn feelings of exhaustion into a socialist project. Indeed, Chaudhary admits that “for many emerging and vital constituencies of the Exhausted . . . the project of full socialism . . . is not necessarily desirable and has considerably less mass purchase than exhaustion.” While the exhaustion of our epoch leads to spontaneous action, one can see problems with turning this into directed action. Such horizontal feelings of outrage, as described by Vincent Bevins in Why We Burn, do not necessarily formulate into a coherent political project. One also wonders if it is not too much to hope for our collective emergence from depoliticized exhaustion. Medicalized responses to exhaustion (amphetamines, antidepressants, and sedatives), noted by Chaudhary, suggest instead the possible coming of a Brave New World dystopia. But hope we must. 

A final area where I take exception to Chaudhary is his assertion that “the ‘more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society’ is already here; it has been for a while; we’re just behind the times.” Although this model “doesn’t mean pitched mass battles,” it suggests an eruption of violence beyond the always-latent “class war” that plays out through both the slow violence of exploitation and flashes of brutal repression. “Civil war” is not an appropriate description of our present moment, and may be permissive of a political violence that extends beyond the bounds of what is prudent. Spontaneity is not always to be celebrated, and an overplaying of hands could lead to ruthless disruption before the army is ready to go into the field. 

Although some of the book is theoretically dense, it offers enough explanation that casual readers will still find something to gain. The importance of Chaudhary’s project is underscored by the serious threat of climate change to all life on the planet; a point he clearly illustrates. World leaders consistently overshoot their professed climate goals, and even “committed warming”—the future effects of carbon already in the atmosphere—haunts us like Marx’s “dead labor.” For socialist organizers, the book sets the task of finding ways to speak to these “Exhausted,” and to direct their spontaneous actions toward constructive ends. To quote Fanon, “things must be explained to them; the people must see where they are going, and how they are to get there.” Chaudhary’s The Exhausted of the Earth provides us a valuable explanation.

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