It no can longer be denied that we live in the ruins of capitalism, observes Bruno Latour. The French philosopher’s latest work, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Où atterrir?), argues that the ecological disaster that is both the present and near future shapes today’s politics, forcing people to drastically reassess their outlooks on the world. For Latour, the populist ‘conservative revolution’ caters, through denial and rejection, to political questions posed by climate change and ecosystem breakdown. If the European Greens start asking the right questions, he argues, they too are well placed to offer a positive response.
Socrates Schouten: Your book dedicates great attention to Brexit and Donald Trump. Since its publication, Jair Bolsonaro has come to power in Brazil. What do you make of this sequence of events?
Bruno Latour: The British are experimenting with what it means to separate yourself. Great Britain may have invented globalisation in the 19th century, but now they are the first to leave. This is a historical shift that we have to understand. The presidencies of Trump in America and Bolsonaro in Brazil are catastrophic, but, as historical phenomena, not as crucial as Brexit. After all, America has always been somewhat suspended in outer space, its long, eccentric history of pollution, mining, and intense fossil fuel consumption.
The populist reaction is everywhere the same: a twofold call for a return to identity and for a push to fling open the frontiers of the capitalist economy. Comparing current developments to the 1930s is a misconception. Fascism did unite a modernist ‘technophilia’ with an archaic conception of identity. But it was intended as a civilising project: develop the state, discipline the individual, live the dream of a mythical Rome or Germania. Trump or Bolsonaro have none of that. Theirs are no civilising projects. They merely seek to ‘get rid’, whether it is of migration, regulation, or nature.
The impulses to ‘leave’ or to ‘build that wall’ are not politics but escapism.
The idea of a departure, as with Brexit, is the illusion of the conservative revolution. The return to identity is a pipedream, because ultra-right parties have no real offer. They have no materialist or empirical sense of what the territory which they want to return to people is grounded upon. The impulses to ‘leave’ or to ‘build that wall’ are not politics but escapism. The climate policy of Trump and his associates is mere denial and withdrawal.
How do the successes of right-wing populism bring you to the question of ‘getting “down to Earth”’, or “where to land”, to use the original title of your book?
A very old question lies behind these developments: on what earth can we as a people exist? The Heimat question, if you will [an evocative German term for ‘Homeland’ or place of belonging]. I argue that we need to find out what the earth we live and depend on is. Hence the title of my book, Down to Earth. The Greens have typically answered this question with concepts such as ‘nature’ or ‘the planet’, terms that lack any political import. But if people on the Left cannot understand why so many are clamouring for a return to the nation state and even to ethnic identity, they will lose one election after another. The same goes for the Social Democrats. They look forward to the moment when the social democratic story will resume; when growth returns, Trump loses the election, and everything goes back to normal. The same disorientation can be found everywhere.
But recent developments place this situation in a new light. Everyone acknowledges that we are now in a new climate regime — including the deniers by dint of their active opposition to that reality. People will soon discover that the ecological is not about ‘nature’ but our very means of existence; it defines the space in which you can live as a person.
Recent events support the philosopher’s analysis. Latour starts his book with the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris agreement on 1 June 2017. Since its release, France has witnessed a movement born of climate politics: the gilets jaunes.
Bruno Latour: The gilets jaunes are an interesting movement. They started as right-wing protests against diesel taxes that were introduced as part of Emmanuel Macron’s environmental policy. Now people are starting to realise that ecological and social justice are the same. The French government was surprised that these two political energies could come together. But everyone who is interested in ecology knows that you cannot separate it from the social.
Not many yellow vests will confirm that their struggle is about ecological justice, but Latour does not care. For him, rejections of environmental policy confirm that climate change is the defining issue of our time. Climate and ecology are broad terms for him, spanning “that which concerns the material conditions for existence”. The real problem is an inability to think and talk about these conditions properly. According to Latour, a new political perspective should be developed through asking people on what ‘earth’ they depend, and which people, things, and animals are necessary for their subsistence.
How do you go about describing the material conditions for existence?
I visit people and ask them a simple question: what and
who do you depend on? Because if you do not understand the world, you cannot do
politics. You need to be able to describe your friends and enemies. The answer
will not necessarily be a piece of land, but a network from which you can judge
who is with and against you. In the absence of such an understanding, you get
ridiculous results. Like the Polish people who, although they have virtually no
immigration, see immigration as the main threat. Or the British towns that
voted for Brexit whilst being the most dependent on European funding. Only
after the decision to leave the EU did people start to discover the ways
through which they were connected to it; that all those rules were there for a
reason. My suggestion to the Greens is to start with a moment of description. But
note: you must not describe people’s lives; they must describe themselves.
Latour, who interviews residents of his home region, is inspired by the Cahiers de doléances et propositions that were collected on the eve of the French Revolution at the request of King Louis XVI. Tens of thousands of complaints and requests were addressed to the King, together providing “a pretty accurate description of their environment”. “The Cahiers are the only case that I know of where the request came from a king who had no idea what to do. Macron has plenty of ideas about what he wants to do, which is what got him into such trouble.” With riots on the street, this January Macron withdrew some of the most hated proposals and began a series of national debates. We are not ready for a debate yet, interjected Latour in the media at the time: “We have gilets jaunes that do not know what they want and a government that does not want to listen.” Far away from the centres of power, the Mairies Ouvertes, ‘open town halls’, initiative emerged. Mayors from hundreds of rural municipalities collected citizens’ concerns before handing them over to the president, as had been done centuries before. The most common demands were for lower tax and more say, perhaps falling short of what Latour might have hoped for, but the initiative is an interesting first step nevertheless.
For many people, understanding the ‘earth’ on which they live is difficult. You argue that the ecological politics that we need may require too much care, attention, and diplomacy. Is your ‘landing’ still possible?
I argue that it is necessary to land, not that it is easy. Take agriculture: organic agriculture takes more time and care than conventional agriculture. There are more variables. The soil itself is more complex. There are more bugs in it. Food webs are complicated. European regulations are complicated. Life is complicated. Why would anyone say that life is simple? But we cannot escape that complexity, we are a civilising project. That is what ‘landing’ means – that you cannot leave or turn away.
Are you politically acclaimed in your own country, France?
I have spoken to three successive French environment ministers and it was always the same story. After about 10 minutes of conversation, each one said that engaging in complicated descriptions was pointless and that people are convinced with simple arguments. But this is a complete misconception. When socialism came into existence in the 19th century, no one said it was easy. It was called downright complicated. You had to read Marx and attend reading and discussion groups. Yet the current Left in France is uninterested in understanding and describing the world, which is why there is no politics left. Politics was supposed to be about describing a world, positioning your friends and enemies within it, and then doing something about it. The Greens should be given credit reintroducing a material understanding of what the earth is supposed to be; but they have to be criticised for sticking to the idea of ‘nature’, which was always a bad description.
I’m a modernist at heart and a progressive. What else does Europe have to offer if not progress?
You reject the story of the ‘global’, of convergence towards a shared planetary household. But is there still opportunity in Europe for the Left’s story, an aspiration for solidarity and cooperation?
Of course, the horizon of a common world is necessary. I’m a modernist at heart and a progressive. What else does Europe have to offer if not progress? But to be progressive towards the ‘terrestrial’, the earthly, is not the same as to be progressive towards the global. It has to be clear to which world you are progressing. It is said that the Left is materialist. Really it is idealist. In two centuries of modernity, not one proper word has been said on the question of material conditions. The Greens can now say they know what it means to be materialist. Material conditions mean the climate, species diversity, water, heat, and so on.
The Greens as front-runner materialists… That’s a new one.
The Greens have often been accused by other parties of wanting to go “back to nature”, back to the past. But the Greens can be proud of having always asked about the life on which people depend. The conservative revolution and the Greens talk the same language but with different meanings. It is not land as evoked by Brexit, but the networks and life that a piece of earth sustains.
It is an old question, and one which I have been writing about for 30 years since Politics of Nature, with little avail. To Yannick Jadot, the leader of the French Greens for the European elections, I say you are the majority now. Not yet in terms of elections, but in terms of shifting the public mentality. Contemporary politics is ecology. Use it to your advantage.