Geohell: Imagining History in the Contemporary World by Matthew Kenner
Gatsby Inc, November 2016
549 pages – Amazon
With over a billion people on the planet living in extreme poverty, billions more struggling to survive, and the rest firmly complacent to the suffering of the rest, the web of pain inflicted by our global civilization seems to be getting worse. The twin terrors of nuclear annihilation and climate catastrophe suggest that, not only is it getting worse, but it may be ending soon as well. This situation—particularly when the tireless efforts of reformers and revolutionaries attempting to make things better are overshadowed and/or offset and/or co-opted by the destruction caused by the efforts of the world’s power elite—could be perhaps best described with one word: Hell.
That’s the word Matthew Kenner chooses to use, anyway. In his debut text, Geohell: Imagining History in the Contemporary World, Kenner writes, “What else can you call those things that humans do, primarily defined by the deliberate encouragement of ever-greater destruction, besides evils? What else can you call that culture which has been founded solely on pursuing those activities ensuring the greatest possible destruction, if not Hell?”
It feels like an important book. This isn’t because of the numerous compound words or scholastic approach that Geohell deploys, but the gravity of what the book is about: the history of human civilizations and power that has led us to our current state as a global species, a state that has us on the brink of total environmental collapse. The stakes of reading Geohell are so high that, if you don’t read it, it feels like you may be playing a role in the destruction of yourself, the species, and the planet.
The task of capturing such an unwieldy history isn’t an arrogant one, according the author. From the get-go, Kenner makes his very sincere intentions very clear:
While I’m not sure if humanity can survive even if enough individuals learn about the contemporary world and its emergence out of the long (but certainly not too long, when compared to the planet as a whole) evolution of civilizations, I’m unwavering in my conviction that, if humanity is able to avoid total self-destruction, such an understanding must be the first step. Trying to contribute to so monumental a shift may seem like an all too sweeping and ‘overly ambitious’, possibly even hubristic goal. But, for whatever my own judgment of myself is worth to the reader, I don’t believe that hubris drives me here: I attempt such a contribution, rather, insofar as it’s the only goal I consider morally worth striving for amidst human history’s unprecedentedly urgent present phase.
It is this heavy matter that urges one to keep reading Geohell. I admit that I put it down a couple of times, struggling to get through the first page. I’d originally interpreted Kenner’s work as pretentious critical theory, the type I’d been inundated with in grad school—an instant turn off. But the grave nature of the topic kept bringing me back. If Kenner’s book could explain how the world got to be so bad, then I could will myself to be snapped out of laziness and distractedness to read it.
Once I did, I realized that, often enough, the book is actually as straightforward as it can be when describing and explaining the history of human civilizations leading up to now. The concepts, though they may seem complex at first, are only complex because we’re taught from a very early age, and all the way up through higher education, to be very narrowly focused on very specialized topics. We’re not so used to examining the world from the broadest possible perspective.
The resulting picture is one of power, driven by the mechanics of civilizations and history. This picture starts with the establishment of early agricultural settlements, in which herders competed violently for grazing land. Herders would become the protectors of settlements, patrolling the borders for competing groups and collecting tributes from the residents within. The broader point is that, from early on in the history of humanity, hierarchies were established with individuals most capable of inflicting violence enforcing dominance:
[T]he great landowners in any given polity were typically the families or descendants of the most recent individuals who had been able to successfully defend the land with violent force. To ‘defend’ the land, however, in this sense, implies that at one point the ancestors or living relatives of the great landowners had overtaken the land, meaning they had committed an originary act of enormous force. ‘Lords’ were always ‘warlords’, in the first instance, before becoming ‘landlords’, and this was how States would eventually form.
Such violent hierarchies are built into the structure of civilizations themselves, according to Kenner, and the emergence of the State, through its monopoly on force, is key as the primary method for control over the populations that live within its jurisdictions. From these early settlements grew cities. What started as local empires grew into global empires, the Great Powers vying for control over various markets and peoples. The British ultimately conquered the global market. With time and industrialization, the British Empire became the Anglo-American Empire, the head of a Western Empire that would come to globalize the entire planet.
Now, the Earth is dominated by a single, all-encompassing empire that operates according to the movements of a war-trade market. Though humanity may be more interconnected than ever, it’s within the constraints of a capitalist system whose levers are pulled by only the smallest sliver of the human population. All wars that occur do so within this system, simply moves on a planetary chessboard played by the wealthiest members of the species to eek the last drops of the planet’s finite resources into their control.
Readers might take issue with some of these ideas that Kenner lays out, here, describing how the elites play war games at the expense of human life. For instance, he argues that World War One and the establishment of the Federal Reserve occurred as a means of preventing an up-and-coming German Empire from wresting control over world affairs. It wasn’t that the U.S. established the Fed in order to initiate World War One, but as a means of mobilizing all of the country’s funds if given the opportunity to participate in a war against Germany, a nation ready to take on the British and Americans as a new world power.
He also argues that, even before the end of World War Two, the Allies were setting the Soviet Union up as a new enemy with which to fight the Cold War and prop up a permanent war economy. Citing the Chief of Special Operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff under JFK, L. Fletcher Prouty, Kenner describes the Allies meeting with Stalin to plan Cold War battles in Southeast Asia as a means of providing “enemies” to both the Western allies and the Soviet bloc. This would allow both “sides” to redirect their entire economies towards an unending war effort and make it possible to form a globalized industrial economy.
Kenner deflects any potential label of conspiracy by pointing out that he is only studying the structure of civilization. Picking out individual hegemons with written geostrategic plans would be difficult to come by or prove—though he does refer to the account of Prouty as one witness. Looking at everything besides that proof, looking at the structure of our civilization and our history, such machinations seem probable.
The global elite need not be an eternal class of individuals, a secret society passing codes from one generation to the next, to rule the world. They can simply be the upper echelons of our now worldwide civilization. The elites enact the dynamics of power as long as they are in power. They lose that ability (and elite status) when they are no longer in a position to do so—or if they disobey the social mores of their class.
Imagine that this behavior isn’t the result of occult training, but herd mentality, the same mentality that makes you and I fall in with the crowd, only the crowd is other powerful people and falling in means pushing the levers of power and swinging the dynamics of entire populations. In this way, the elites are cogs in the same machine as the rest of us, only they are the cogs most essential for throwing the machine’s switches.
If you wipe away visions of cartoon super villains ruling our reality and replace them with wealthy men who simply have a geostrategic perspective on the way the economy works, using militaries to pry open new markets and ensure specific control over valuable resources, it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to believe Kenner’s ideas. It’s just the way things are.
It’s nearly a widely acknowledged fact that the CIA trained Osama bin Laden and propped up Saddam Hussein, among numerous other dictators. Why wouldn’t the US have funded the USSR, as Anthony Sutton, a referenced source in Geohell, suggests?
Journalist Gary Webb showed the world that the Reagan administration introduced addictive drugs to the United States’ most vulnerable communities to fund the Contras in Nicaragua. We know that the FBI tried to nudge Martin Luther King Jr. towards suicide with threatening letters and falsified evidence of an extramarital affair. The Bush administration fabricated a narrative to enable an attack on Iraq. Edward Snowden was able to dump thousands of documents detailing U.S. and European powers spying on the entire globe without having any effect on the powers spying on the entire globe. Most recently, declassified documents have shown that the CIA considered detonating bombs in Miami as an excuse to attack Havana.
How hard then is it to believe that the global elites, leveraging the U.S. as the seat of global power, think in such perverse, geostrategic terms?
Perhaps the most startling argument Kenner makes is the idea that even Marx was paid by the global elite, as well. Kenner points to The Communist Manifesto in particular as being funded by the Louisiana pirate and courier for American bankers Jean Lafitte. Ideas perpetuated by Marx include the use of a strong military to usurp control of the state in order to institute proletarian rule that can ultimately be transitioned to true egalitarianism. Kenner argues that such a strategy simply would —and did, if you look at the authoritarian regimes that were established in the name of socialism—replace the oligarchies that ran State apparatuses with new ones.
Regardless of Marx’s intentions, even Marxism could have been a ploy by the global elite to infiltrate and co-opt its own opposition for its own ends. Such ideas should have the Left concerned with possible elite influence and capitalist infiltration into their movements. Moreover, it should force the Left to examine the variety of movements currently in motion from a broader, global perspective. For instance, given the strong links between the Tor Project and the U.S. government, should give Internet privacy activists pause before relying on Tor for anonymity on the Internet and dark web.
All of this history builds towards an increasingly unstable situation for all involved, including the elites. To maintain a global system in which everyone is a part requires tight control. To maintain that control requires the internalizing of the ideology projected by the system, which involves subjects living by some sense of morality that is also followed by the powerful. However, just as the ecosystem is falling apart at the seams, so too is the appearance of legitimacy of the institutions and people holding the system together. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that our institutions and leaders are defrauding the masses. Whether or not we will collectively become conscious of this state of affairs before it’s too late is unknown, but Geohell is trying to do its part in reversing a course towards total annihilation.
Kenner tells this story using a unique and relevant conceit, that of Dante’s Inferno. The author leads us in slow dizzying circles of hell, bringing us closer to the more horrifying truth of our reality with each section of the book. Inferno was chosen as the model for a few reasons. Dante was writing his work in medieval Florence, the heart of what would become the prototypical model for modern capitalism. The work also obviously represents humanity’s own descent into hell. By pacing the reader circle by circle into deeper, more horrific truths about our world, Kenner is able to prime the reader for facts that they might not have been ready to integrate cognitively at the beginning of the book. The style may also reflect the author’s own journey, realizing and putting together the ideas as he researches them and communicates them to the reader.
As a work of literature, Geohell is difficult for me to critique (though a historian or other academic might have their own criticisms). As a means of spreading important information relevant to the hellish nature of our burning civilization, however, I do think there are next steps for Kenner to take in order to translate this piece into something more immediately accessible to a wider population.
Given the stakes that hinge on whether or not the human collective can learn the lessons of Geohell, Kenner might further prioritize a more linear structure for subsequent books, something that is easy for readers to understand in terms of the basic concepts, but perhaps without the important nuances. I can even imagine an abridged Geohell for more mature readers and one for younger audiences, such as high schoolers. Maybe it would be called Geoheck. There could even be a book for toddlers: Geo-h-e-double-hockey-sticks. That might be taking things a bit too, far, but you get the idea.
Fortunately, I learned that Kenner actually is working on something more accessible, which he described to me as “a 150-page guide to psychologically assimilating to what I’ve written in Geohell and how it relates to the present.” The book would be “written in the plainest language possible” and readers of the guide wouldn’t have to have read Geohell to understand it. Beyond that, Kenner also wants to describe potential solutions to the immense structural problems humanity has constructed for itself and our only home planet, including the concept of the global gift economy, as described in Sacred Economics. He foreshadows as much in the closing of his book:
Tellingly of the whole, it’s not a question of ‘What?’ –as in, ‘What to do?’ –it’s a question of ‘How?’: how do we actually accomplish the things we need to accomplish? In other words, we’re dealing with a situation where, it’s not at all that we have a lack of theoretical solutions –we’re aware of what’s good for us, and not only do we know that they’re good for us, but in fact we understand why they’re good for us –but a complete inability to even begin to conceive of practical ones. What kind of humanity would be logistically incapable of militarization? This is what we need to figure out.
Once Kenner gets to these topics, I can also envision future volumes dedicated to specific aspects of the global war-trade system, such as the psychological/ideological mechanisms that cause people to behave the way they do.
One reason I believe that the propaganda ultimately works is because humanity has no basis for understanding its place in the universe, regardless of whether or not such a place exists. Either language, perception or actual existential meaning force humans to seek purpose, a reason for being. Because there is no obviously definite reason for being, there is a void that the powers that dominate our reality can exploit. Organized religions, States, corporations and other powerful systems run by the elite can provide meaning that can be used for their own ends. This is the ultimate ideological tool that allows the powers to manipulate large swaths of humanity to perform actions that serve their interests. Kenner hints at these ideas, describing the culture associated with a given time and place as the means by which the system enacts itself through society’s members, but I do believe it can be given more space.
After dealing with the ideological nature of the system and the psychological mechanisms that are used to control its subjects—maybe after the hard work of doing away with the system altogether is achieved–I’d like to see room made for that existential void so often filled with ideology. Once the system is over and done with, we can while the days away trying to understand what all of this suffering was for. Could the violence that we are struggling to come out of have been some teleological means of uniting the human species in order to achieve its own collective awareness, as philosopher Teilhard de Chardin suggested? An elaborate and painful drama played out by the Hindu concept of Brahman? Or maybe just a simulacrum created by a bored Elon Musk at some point in the future. Those questions would be worth considering, if not at a lower priority than how to dismantle the Geohell that we are living.
Unfortunately, writing books like Geohell doesn’t always pay. Kenner has a Patreon, but it doesn’t have all of the backers necessary to get Geohell 2: Hellectric Boogaloo off the ground. Without the funds to back a more accessible version of the text, capitalism may be doing its best to thwart humanity’s own understanding of itself and its history, perhaps the gravest sin of all. As Kenner writes of globalized industrialization’s impact on humanity: “Aside from the obvious blunt physical destruction, an even worse destruction was happening mentally, related to humanity’s understanding of its own world.”