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Reactionary ecology

Originally published: New Left Review on February 26, 2024 by Dominique Routhier (more by New Left Review)  | (Posted Feb 28, 2024)

For many continental philosophers, the first two decades of the new millennium were a time of vibrant matter, hyperobjects, and a weird fixation with intestinal microbes. The late Bruno Latour saw this ‘new materialist’ doctrine—which decentred the human subject in favour of the world of ‘things’, believed to have agency of their own—as a useful resource in his career-long polemic against Marxism. Yet as Alyssa Battistoni has argued, Latour nonetheless ‘inched to the left’ during the latter half of the 2010s, focusing increasingly on the climate crisis and its imbrication with capitalist production. By way of Gaia theory, he became less concerned with micro-agency and began to develop a concept of the totality of interlocking organic and inorganic planetary forces. In Down to Earth (2019), he even introduced a form of overarching social antagonism by suggesting that the primary division of the twenty-first century was between the majority of the global population, who recognized the earth’s biophysical boundaries, and the elites who transgressed and disavowed them.

This apparent radicalization culminated in Latour’s final published work, On the Emergence of an Ecological Class: A Memo (2022), co-authored with the young Danish sociologist Nikolaj Schultz. Here, all prior reservations about terms like ‘class’, ‘society’ or ‘capitalism’ seem to have evaporated. No more sniffing the ground in search of lost microorganisms. Latour—true to his name—towers above the political landscape, scanning it in search of an ‘ecological class’ capable of salvaging the planet. Divided into 76 short entries, each of which takes up little more than a page, the Memo aims to develop a new ecologism capable of winning ‘the battle of ideas’—just as ‘liberalism, followed by the various socialisms, then neoliberalism, and finally, more recently, the illiberal or neofascist parties’, have done. How should we assess this ambitious final project? To what extent can the late Latour be described as a figure of the left?

Latour and Schultz write that, in the present conjuncture, ecologism must cut across social categories to achieve hegemony. It must break the Marxist monopoly on class struggle and consolidate environmental activists of every variety into a single, universal subject. If this movement has not yet come to fruition, that is because of a ‘crisis in our mobilization capabilities’ caused by ‘anxiety, guilt and impotence’: ‘all these sad passions so characteristic of the times’. A ‘misalignment of affects’ at the level of our shared existence has left us ‘powerless to act collectively’. This, in turn, is described as the result of modernity’s ceaseless expansion of ‘production’, which has alienated and uprooted premodern community life. For Latour and Schultz, the fundamental problem isn’t property rights, capitalist social relations or wealth disparities; the world is simply out of joint. To realign it so that mass collective action is easier to imagine, the Memo urges us to recalibrate various political-ecological concepts: ‘soil, territory, land, nation, people, attachment, tradition, boundary, border.’

The authors are aware of the reactionary connotations of these terms. Still, they insist that rather than invoking them as abstract values, they are repopulating them ‘with a whole host of living things’: feminist movements, decolonial uprisings, indigenous struggles for land rights. Religion, too, can supposedly be reclaimed for progressive ecology. Latour—described by one obituarist as ‘the most important Catholic philosopher in the world’—views the faithful as potential future allies, who have already been labouring, ‘over the course of centuries, to transform souls’. ‘So let’s add to our list all those who work, rite after rite, to make sure that the “cry of the Earth and the Poor”—to take up the beautiful expression (or, rather, cry!) of Pope Francis—is finally heard’.

Drawing on Christian theology, the authors’ ultimate ambition is to gather together the lost souls from across the world and give them a renewed sense of purpose and direction under the banner of ecology. The Memo directly addresses anyone who may be inclined to fight for climate justice, urging them to overcome the internal obstacles to political activity. In their conclusion, the authors draw a parallel between military mobilization for war and affective mobilization for ecologism, asserting that in the final analysis, ‘political ecology’ is ‘the name of a war zone’.

Full of literary flourishes, programmatic statements and bombastic assertions, The Emergence of an Ecological Class mimics the style of an avant-garde manifesto. The reader is warned at the outset that they ‘won’t find nuances or notes’. Yet the book also begins by quoting the dictionary definition of ‘mémorandum’: originally a term for an official document outlining the government’s views on a given issue. This curious combination of forms speaks to an underlying tension: between the elite sensibility of the authors and the popular cause they claim to advocate. Latour and Shultz write that ‘Marx remains an indispensable guide’ in their endeavour, and they recycle his image of a haunting spectre—substituting ecologism for communism. But when faced with the radical implications of a Marxian approach to climate crisis, they instinctively recoil, and the Memo’s bureaucratic temperament supplants the manifesto’s political urgency.

This is most apparent in the authors’ discussion of their eponymous class subject. Membership of the ecological class is not reserved for the proletarianized, the propertyless, the underemployed, the precariat, or the racialized ‘surplus’ populations disproportionally affected by climate change (though they are, presumably, welcome to join its ranks). It is rather defined by the question, ‘When disputes involve ecology, who do you feel close to and who do you feel terribly far away from?’ Latour and Shultz deny any structural division between owners and producers, creditors and debtors, and replace an analysis of material fault lines with a faux solidarity based on gut instinct.

The effect is to flatten the social terrain by making ‘affects’ the primary determinant of one’s socio-political position. Rather than pitting the exploited working masses against their natural enemies—settler colonizers, landowners, industrialists and rentiers—Latour and Schulz juxtapose ‘living beings’ to ‘modernization’. This leaves them with a quasi-Heideggerian ecology, saturated with the jargon of dwelling places and authentic existence. ‘Primitive’ life is idealized as the antidote to ecocidal ‘development’. Attempting to outrun the long shadow cast by the tradition of class struggle, the authors embrace a reactionary obscurantism.

At the same time, the Memo evokes the blandest variety of French centrism, asserting that ecologism represents ‘the grain of truth in the cliché “neither right nor left”’, and framing politics as a ‘battle of ideas’ instead of as a struggle between classes. Ni droite ni gauche was once a mantra of the far right, as Zeev Sternhell demonstrated in his 1983 study of L’idéologie fasciste en France. Today, it has become associated with the post-political vision of Macron—who, shortly after the news of Latour’s death, lamented the loss of this great ‘thinker of ecology’. Formally at least, Latour’s ecologism resembles macronisme in holding that ideas and principles, through their persuasive power alone, can surmount political divisions and win support from across the social spectrum.

Latour and Schulz argue that before sad passions paralysed the world, ‘people’s energies used to flow from their ideals’ and ‘understanding a situation was enough to mobilize’ for social change. Their primary task, then, is not political—to assess the balance of societal forces and the strategies for overturning them—but pedagogical: to ensure that those who are choosing between the ideology of the ‘ruling class’ and that of the ‘ecological class’ know that truth and justice are on the side of the latter. There is no need to undertake a detailed analysis of contemporary radical politics and the conditions of emergence for a unified climate movement. Instead, the proper role of intellectuals is closer to that of neoliberal politicians: ‘selling’ the correct environmentalist doctrine to the people.

The book’s proximity to a sales pitch is clear from its overwrought prose (not to mention its frequent use of exclamation marks!). Yet in the final analysis, what is being sold to the reader is not a set of principles or policies, but rather a series of self-help precepts. As is typical of the genre, the Memo lays out its central purpose on its title page: ‘How to promote the emergence of an ecological class that’s self-aware and proud.’ For Latour and Schulz, pride is the foremost remedy for ‘misaligned affects’, the emotion that will embolden the ecologically-minded to take action. Their aim is to instil this feeling, not in any particular class subject, but in anyone who—thanks to the onslaught of undifferentiated ‘modernity’—has become paralysed by loneliness, frustration, fear, shame or guilt. On the Emergence of an Ecological Class must be read in this light: as a ‘how to’ book for would-be climate activists who yearn to escape their existential inertia but are still too timid to blow up a pipeline.

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