Friday, 26 June 2015

What is politics? Ecomodernist disagreements

A couple of months ago, I wrote a few review posts on The Breakthrough Institute's Ecomodernist Manifesto. This week, the Institute held an event that brought together the Manifesto's major proponents and critics, including (just to name those most familiar to me) Mark Lynas, Clive Hamilton, Bruno Latour and Steve Fuller.

Latour's contribution, titled 'Fifty Shades of Green,' expressed its sympathies for the Institute's aims but strongly criticised the Manifesto's politics – or, rather, its lack of politics.

Couched in (Carl) Schmittean terms of friend/enemy declarations, I don't think it went down well with its (I presume) broadly liberal (in the US sense) audience. I posted a few excerpts from Latour's piece on Twitter, including the following, which drew a response from Mike Shellenberger, one of the Institute's founders:
I suggested that perhaps this might be part of the problem – politics without anger is lacking its proper passion. Mike generously responded again. However, this exchange only really brought home to me how difficult it is to make anything approaching an intelligent point in less than 140 characters! I certainly failed to.

In any case, there is a basic disagreement here as to what constitutes politics. As I quoted in the final instalment of my aforementioned review posts, Matthew Nisbet, an Associate Professor of Communication Studies, writes:
"Politics, argue ecomodernists, is about getting a diversity of people to act on behalf of the same goal but for different reasons."
From the point of view of agonistic pluralism (terminology from political theory that is usually associated with Chantal Mouffe but I think is also fair to apply to Latour's political thought in a general sense), this is not in itself a problematic claim. Politics is certainly about building alliances, working together and living together without any unity, any common identity, any easy 'of course, we can all agree on...' to take as a starting point and serve as a steady, unquestionable foundation, a keystone. This political theory is, in short, pluralistic – no problem.

However, pluralism should not, I believe, be separated from agonism. Indeed, I would agree with Mouffe, Latour and others that politics only really comes into existence in its proper form when there is conflict, disagreement, dissensus – yes, even anger.

Insisting upon the friend/enemy distinction is not to say that we should march around with baseball bats looking to silence those we disagree with. As Tim Howles adds:
It means, first of all, that we should recognise that we are unavoidably politically engaged with people who have no interest in 'debating' us.

There are those for whom politics is simply about winning. In one of the more chilling moments in the recent film The Look of Silence, a leader of the forces that conducted the Indonesian genocide, now a powerful politician, insists that the genocide was simply politics because (and I paraphrase from memory but this is more or less verbatim, at least to the translation) 'politics is about achieving your ideals' – and that is what they did, with machetes, wire, knives... (Lest we 'eco-modern' Euro-Americans feel smug and superior, let's not forget our flesh-smeared border fences and body-strewn beaches, for starters. Barbed wire fences are also Anthropocene technologies...)

One thing that this (quite brilliant) film brought home to me was how political struggle is often literally and immediately a matter of life and death. This genocide happened with the active support of the US government because it was exterminating 'communists' (which was, needless to say, a rather broadly applied category). The astonishingly brave protagonist of this film, whose older brother was killed in the genocide, is regularly threatened with a refrain: 'why do you want to re-open old wounds? you'll make it happen again.' The subtext being that he and his family could very well disappear if they insist on pursuing truth and justice.

That is a bit of a tangent but the point that I am making is that there are people out there who no amount of well-mannered argumentation will ever reach. To take another very important film that has just been released (or, depending on where you are, will be soon), the screen adaptation of Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway's well-known book Merchants of Doubt. The political and geopolitical actors in this real-life horror story were not out to 'negotiate' but to defeat, by any means necessary – death threats, misinformation, outright lies and worse.

Are these not our enemies (we are most certainly theirs)?...

This is the first importance of the recognition of the friend/enemy distinction, then: recognition that if politics is not war (if it is not simply the 'achievement of ideals by any means necessary') then neither, in many cases, can the two things be easily separated. It takes an extremely privileged, metropolitan and, frankly, cosseted perspective to ignore this fact. (A perspective that I myself am lucky enough to fall into on occasion, I will admit.)

However, the other crucial aspect of agonism is that politics must be distinguished from governance. For Latour, after John Dewey, Walter Lippmann and Noortje Marres, there is no politics of any note without a public and there is no public without people becoming passionately interested by issues that affect them. The problem of the 'post-political' (a term that I don't think Latour has used but, again, fits well with his thinking) is the problem of the radical disinterest in active, passionate, engaged political discourse that we find throughout Western societies in recent decades.

Throughout, the Manifesto speaks in the language not of politics but of governance. It proposes and debates technical fixes that could be employed precisely so that the masses needn't get worked up and worry themselves about it. It is not a matter, of course, of 'governance bad, politics good' but the difference must be understood. (I've written more on this aspect of Latour's work elsewhere.)
Insisting upon 'naming your enemies' doesn't mean that this is what politics is reducible to, that there is no more to it than that. It means that politics-proper cannot exist without agonism. It doesn't mean that we should simply set out to defeat our opponents 'by any means necessary' but it means that we recognise that there are people who behave like this and they (at the very least) are our enemies. Moreover, it compels us to recognise that we cannot count on consensual negotiation achieving sufficient momentum or enough of a critical mass (to mix my metaphors) to achieve meaningful political change (but that, I suspect, is precisely what the eco-modernists do not believe is necessary).

We have enemies and they must be defeated – not 'by any means necessary' but by means more forceful than earnest negotiation. We cannot assume that the existing parameters of negotiation and debate are sufficient. There is a political imperative to remake these parameters. This is, in my understanding, what Latour means when he insists that neither Nature nor Society nor anything else can remain as 'sovereign' – these parameters that used to organise our collective being simply no longer function. It is in this sense that the eco-modernists adopt some of Latour's slogans ('no more Nature!') but fail to grasp their meaning.

A fully realised pluralism has to know when to abandon discursive 'business as usual' – when to abandon ship and to learn how to swim again.

To refuse to engage with that dimension of the political demonstrates a totally underdeveloped sense of plurality (here the agonistic and the pluralistic are tied together fundamentally). Well-heeled and well-meaning, more or less metropolitan and by and large academic points of view are only a few of the political forces at play here. Supposing (as the Manifesto does) that liberal values (and US liberal values at that) are somehow universal (or can be expected to be universalised through techno-economic progress) is worse than naive. Remember Indonesia.

Modernity is built on bones as well as carbon.

I apologise that the above is a little verbose. As I believe Mark Twain put it, I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.


  1. "politics" (like publics as Laour reminds us) are not ready-made artifacts, or forces of physics, to be discovered/employed/enforced but always already in the midst of being assembled.

  2. Well said, Philip. I'm not sure if Breakthrough's event was public or private, but I was upset to only learn of Latour's visit to the Bay Area after the fact. It would have been fun to be present. I'm sure the discussion after his paper was, shall we say, percussive.

  3. I think it was invitation only but I'm not sure. Hopefully there'll be more recordings, etc. made public.

  4. Has no one considered that perhaps Latour has never been an ecomodernist and that it was simply a misunderstanding that led him to be incorporated into the first Breakthrough Institute statement? As someone who has followed (increasingly critically) Latour's work for the last 30+ years, the man is a 'conservative' at heart, and it's only his rhetoric that makes him appear 'progressive' in the sense that ecomodernists are striving for. It seems to me that you either buy Latour's view of things or you buy ecomodernism, but the two are not compatible in terms of fundamental assumptions about the world.