French philosopher Bruno Latour has died. I was introduced to his work as an undergraduate at Brunel University by his collaborator Steve Woolgar in the late 1980s, and his writings have continued to play an important part in the way I think about the world. Here’s a piece I wrote last year, having read his 2018 work Down to Earth.
I have been reading Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth (Polity Press, 2018: trans Catharine Porter), in which he addresses the crisis in our societies, which is marked, in his analysis, by a resurgent ethnonationalism and an attachment to “alternative facts”. The problem Latour identifies is obvious – it is the unignorable needle jabbing the eye of everyone who thinks about Twenty-First Century politics, economics or society. Where he is interesting, I think, is the way in which he identifies the psychological and social burden of climate denial as the source of the great irrationality that has disrupted society.
Latour’s argument, put crudely, is that the great lie of climate denial has seen society engulfed in an “epistemological delirium” that has driven many of us crazy. The elite, realising in the early 1980s that the resources of one planet could not support the promises made for globalisation and modernisation (progress, development, equality for all), “decided that it was pointless to act as though history were going to continue to move toward a common horizon, toward a world in which all humans could prosper equally” (1) and decided to grab what they could to protect themselves from the coming disasters. Using deregulation, accumulation of wealth and political manipulation “the ruling classes stopped purporting to lead and began sheltering themselves from the world” (2) and from the coming crises of migration, inequality and ecological collapse. To pull off this trick, and to stop the masses from panicking (or, worse, organising to defend their interests) they threw their weight behind the denial of climate change: “the scientific knowledge that underlay their whole movement would have to be obliterated under the conditions of greatest secrecy” (21). The burden of this deception, carried on in the face of increasingly obvious and undeniable changes in the world’s climate and ecology, “poisons those who practice it” (23). The habits of denying the undeniable become so engrained that both the liars and their audience can no longer trust anything or anyone. So, climate denial’s irrationality infects the whole public sphere, every conversation and every issue. We see this in the increasing volatility of the elite’s avatars (Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte) but also in a messianic fervour amongst the elite themselves as they become attached to increasingly outlandish escape plans: from cryptocurrency, to Wild West land grabs and from luxurious underground communities dug out of a Cold War missile silo to delusional dreams off-world colonies. The elite are losing their minds.
The public in the West, Latour argues, have also been unhinged by the great climate change lie. “Facts remain robust only when they are supported by a common culture, by institutions that can be trusted, by a more or less decent public life, by more or less reliable media” (23) but it is precisely this social scaffolding that has been fundamentally undermined by “the fog of distrust” (24) created by the climate change lie. Denied a rational explanation for the way the world around them is crumbling by the lies of climate change, the public are not just caught between competing ideologies, they are struggling to cope with living simultaneously in “several worlds, several territories, and they are all incompatible” (26). We can see that things are going terribly wrong but many of us lack the tools to understand why, let alone a way of navigating a route to a solution.
The mass of the people lack the time or resources to organise or develop solutions to our problems. We face “more vital, more existential threats” – as we are forced, increasingly, to fight just to survive. Work is precarious, pay is stagnating, welfare nets are shredded and the rug has been pulled from beneath our feet, forcing us to be “concerned with the floor” (8) that is rushing up to meet us as we fall.
The polarization of our societies – driven by the increasingly outlandish denial of patent facts by those with political and communicative power – has caused the “brutalisaton of political discourse” – fake news and angry rhetoric drive distrust and division, driving out rational or proportionate responses. Meanwhile the globalists and localisers who have profited from these lies “have all begun to flee as quickly as possible, competing in their lack of political realism” and so it becomes a struggle of “bubble versus bubble; gated community versus gated community” (31) where, without shared frames of reference, empathy and even basic comprehension becomes impossible.
Latour’s analysis is interesting but the idea that climate denial is the “original sin” of modern capitalism does no, I think, bear close scrutiny. In Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury, 2011), Oreskes & Conway make a convincing case that the techniques used to obscure the truth about climate change were first developed by corporations in Cold War battles to preserve short-term profits against other scientific claims. It was in seeking to deny or delay action on issues such as the link between smoking (and later ‘passive smoking’) and cancer, acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer that the weapons used to deny climate change were created and honed by American businesses and their political allies. This arsenal includes techniques such as: the obfuscation of scientific fact through selective reporting of research; the questioning of the trustworthiness of scientists who promote inconvenient truths; the exploitation of journalistic practice to give misinformation the same precedence as scientific research; and lobbying efforts that include direct political donations and the funding of “astroturf” movements that promote corporate agendas behind faux democratic facades. When faced with the threat of climate change, deniers found the ordnance ready to fight their war.
So, climate change is not unique a unique source of our epistemological delirium. And neither is Latour’s fog of distrust unique to Western ways of doing politics.
In the West corporations and their allies started by harnessing Cold War anti-communist paranoia to defend their business interest. Climate change may be the apotheosis of this approach – in the existential threat it presents, it may (literally) be its ultimate expression – but the root of our growing irrationalities go deeper. We can be confident of this because the tools of obfuscation, distrust, manipulation, corruption and misrepresentation used in the West are also present in other political systems. Russia needs no lessons from the West in using these techniques to cripple resistance and preserve the dominant ideology. In Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia (Faber & Faber, 2015) Peter Pomerantsev describes Putin’s Russia as a “society of simulations” (p199) and describes its dizzying success in reshaping meaning “to use the language of rights and representation to validate tyranny, to recut and paste democratic capitalism until it means the reverse of its original purpose” (p75) and where “black is white and white is black. There is no reality. Whatever they say is reality” (p86). Nor can the West teach China about manipulating the truth, where history is rewritten and cake become subversive, where Uyghur peoples disappear into “re-education camps” and where “wolf warriors” lead a sophisticated global information manipulation operation larger than the Kremlin’s. Across Russia, China and the West we see evidence for the corrosive and corrupting effect of denialism on both those who practice it and on their publics. But these cultures of deceit and manipulation are not one global species – they serve the same purpose, are responses to the same pressures but they are the products of unique environments. They are examples of convergent evolution – different systems growing similar looking answers to their problems but separately and from different DNA.
So, I think that Latour oversimplifies the origin of our crisis, but I think that his core point remains correct.
The crucial issue that faces us, the one that defines our age, is the dissipation of the institutions which once bound us together and the evaporation of the trust that allowed debate and compromise between citizens. For Aristotle the polis (the state) was constructed around the constitution, created by citizens and preserved by the politikos (statesman). Politics, therefore, was the practical skill of building a shared world and shared institutions and the constitution was not just a collection of laws, it constituted the citizen’s way of life. Latour notes that Trumpism is not just a different kind of politics but “the end of a politics oriented toward an identifiable goal. Trumpian politics is not “post-truth” it is post politics… since it rejects the world that it claims to inhabit” (38). This is an essential truth. There is nothing built or shared when politicians like Trump achieve power. Everything (politics, economics, religion, culture, media, art, community, family and even the individual’s body) becomes a battlefield in which only the conflict matters. There have been ideological battles over these areas in the past, but what sets this moment apart is that these battles are not primarily driven by a desire to achieve a specific goal but by a desire to humiliate the opposition. The lessons drawn from the victories of the right-wing populists like Trump (and, indeed, from his defeat) are that sowing division works, that belligerence is rewarded and that, in moments of the greatest instability and crisis, the largest crimes are easiest to commit. It’s not that these issues are unimportant in themselves, but that they are chaff distracting from goals that are simpler but more pernicious – greed: for money, power and self-aggrandizement.
And, as Latour notes, while the sound and fury of these battles rage, the effects of climate change and environmental degradation go unaddressed.
Which brings me, circuitously, to the events of the last few weeks in the UK as Boris Johnson seeks to prop up his scandal hit leadership with a relaunch that draws directly on the populist playbook of obfuscation, confusion and division. This counteroffensive is being constructed around a key set of “wedge” issues that are designed to be aggressively divisive even though their impact is often more symbolic than actual.
At the heart of this offensive is Latour’s idea of “epistemological delirium” – or what journalist Fintan O’Toole more colloquially describes as a “gaslighting” agenda. The government’s rhetoric harnesses the language of “levelling up” while pursuing an agenda that widens inequality – blocking deals with unions claiming pay rises that match inflation while lifting caps on pay for executive directors. It talks of “global Britain” while divorcing UK established infrastructures of international trade and diplomacy. It praises British values while raging against every British institution that dares offer even the mildest opposition.
The strategy seeks to highlight divisions. All those who resist the exercise of ministerial fiat are traitors, experts are derided and the (always inadequate) checks and balances of the British constitution get branded as underhand or illegitimate. The foundations of democracy – access to the courts, the right to protest, the legitimacy of devolved and local government, fair trials, basic human rights, even voting itself – are legitimate only if they produce outcomes that coincide with ministerial whim. Rules are for little people. All enabled by the success of the strategy of polarisation and brutalisation. In pursuit of narrow self-interest the government is driving wedges between people: deepening divides, destroying common ground, encouraging alienation and demonising those who stand in their way.
The strategy also seeks to destabilise meaning. In a shameless deployment of the “DARVO strategy” (deny, attack, reverse victim and offender) described by O’Toole, a government made up of Old Etonians and Oxbridge graduates, former bankers and multi-millionaires, call their opponents the “elite” and cast themselves as plucky underdogs. A recasting that O’Toole calls “masochistic fantasy” – where those in positions of power are always the victims. History – even as it happens – is rewritten, lies are repeated shamelessly until they are no longer questioned. Government becomes performance art not problem-solving. Anyone and everything is expendable if it provides chaff to distract from a corruption, incompetence and inaction.
It is, in sum, the deployment of precisely that strategy of confusion, estrangement and division that Latour was describing.
Existential threats, like climate change and environmental degradation, are ignored. But so too are the real causes of economic hardship, of citizen suffering and political division. The local, national and international solidarity necessary to develop meaningful responses to the threats we face is systematically destroyed by a government whose instinct is to scapegoat and demonise all those with independent resources of influence and power. The institutions necessary to deliver an effective response are hollowed out and rendered incapable. The trust necessary to make communities resilient is dissolved. And the very process of debate becomes so aggressive and shrill that our ability to understand what is at stake is fatally diminished.
Is there alternative? Latour hopes that the challenges of global climate disruption, when “the territory itself begins to participate in history, to fight back, in short to concern itself with us” (41), will reorientate our politics away from a left/right, progressive/conservative axis and towards a concern with the “Terrestrial” – a concern to preserve the soil on which we live that will create (in a phrase borrowed from Donna Harraway) a “new way of worlding” (54). But, even if it were possible, I fear that (i) the forces of confusion and division that Latour identifies will not be easily overcome, and (ii) that the realignment, if it comes, is likely to arrive too late to do much good. Latour is keen to see the old left/right political axis abandoned, believing it irrelevant in this new climate change era. But his own analysis of manipulative elites, the corrosive effect of organised reaction and the desire to put short term profit over the health of our planet suggests we are not quite done with the need for a left/right filter through which to understand our world.
However, it seems equally unlikely that right populism can be countered by a mirror-image left populism. In For A Left Populism (Verso, 2018) Chantal Mouffe argues for “a new hegemonic formulation” that can create a “people” with diverse identities but bound together by a “chain of equivalence” that respects their heterogeneous demands while creating a common opposition to “the forces that structurally impede the realization of the democratic project” (79). It’s an is appealing idea. But it also difficult to imagine how – given the extent of the brutalisation of our politics and the polarisation of our society – such a movement might be built from our current position. How can the trust necessary for such a movement be fostered? Mouffe’s idea of putting in place a “political frontier” that is “constructed in a ‘populist’ way, opposing the ‘people’ against the ‘oligarchy’, a confrontation in which the ‘people’ is constituted by the articulation of a variety of democratic ends” (79-80) seems likely to play into the hands of right populists. Frontiers and division are, as we have established, theirmétier. The success of Trump-style populism has largely been built on co-opting the Occupy movement’s “we are the 99%” sense of injustice and framing themselves as the people’s tribunes against a liberal elite. Worse, I think, Mouffe’s chosen exemplars for her movement – Syriza, Podemos, Mélenchon and Corbyn – already look like oddities from a particular moment in history: a sometimes problematic path that led to heavy defeat rather than precursors of a new hegemony.
Marco Revelli ends his The New Populism: Democracy Stares Into The Abyss (Verso, 2017) on an almost apocalyptic note. Surveying the recent history of the Western working class he sees “no political protagonist, no candidate to represent these losers of the new economy who is capable of putting themselves forward as an instrument of a battle for equality” (203) and so they attach themselves to charlatans like Trump and Johnson (members of the elite who affect difference) and Erdogan and Orban: “new-populist agitation from below is openly exploited by those who in fact stand up above” (204). But, perhaps, faced with the threats of a “looming post-democratic future” he suggests that we might find the courage to “talk again about redistributive polices, accessible social services, a health system that is not reduced to shreds, a less punitive wage dynamic, policies less buried in the dogma of austerity” (204). Revelli is sniffy “what once was called ‘reformism’ yet now seems so ‘revolutionary’” and unconvinced. “Whom the gods destroy they first make mad” (205) he concludes
But what other option is there?
Yet what other options do we have? We know what tools rebuilt societies after the Twentieth Century’s spasm of ethnonationalism – creating an era of shared prosperity, increased community cohesion and public trust. We know, too, that we cannot successfully fight bigger battles if we feed the epistemological delirium on which right populism has thrived. The welfarist solutions of the Twentieth Century may not be perfect, they may be difficult to sustain in the long term, but they have a number of key advantages. They are familiar, easily explained, retain a basis of significant popular support, match widely held concepts of fairness and their foundations are already in place and can be rebuilt quickly. They can also be used to foster the sense of community solidarity and increase trust that can halt and, perhaps, dispel the fog of distrust that has broken our societies into incompatible territories. This approach may lack the intellectual thrill of new ways of shaping they world – of Latour’s shift to the “terrestrial” or Mouffe’s new hegemony – but they are likely to be more achievable as an immediate response to an imminent crisis.