Archive for December, 2018|Monthly archive page

The Terrestrialists – Bruno Latour’s new-materialists

Regular readers will know that I have taken a little time out away from my regular work to read a few books to try to get an understanding of where we are, how we got here and how we might get out of here. Alive. Some discomforting answers are supplied in the reading of Eatwell and Goodwin’s book on nationalist populism; the latter, I think, can be extracted from Bruno Latour and his new book (left). I am sure there are many others, however (for example, Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics and Diane Coyle’s (2014) unpackaging of GDP as a measure of  national wellbeing).

Both Eatwell and Goodwin and Latour are pretty clear that liberal democracy is a cause. Moreover, we must keep reminding ourselves, for example, that liberal democracy is relatively new in human history. Baby boomers and their offspring (myself included here), however, have no experience of other forms of democracy, illiberal or otherwise (illiberal democracies are now to be found in Hungary, Poland and increasingly in Italy). It has been the underpinning of economic growth and – what seemed until recently to be – inexorable globalisation. I am grateful to a single essay by John Gray to help me with this also.

I have not really had much reason to consider Latour’s work; I have probably been more scared of it than I should have been. I was nudged towards it after reading an article in the NYT magazine about him, his methodological perspective (actor network theory) and its applications. Often seen as post-modern French philosophy – now conveniently rebranded by others as a philosophy of post-truth – it can be inaccessible.

Bruno Latour, 2017

There are four major events that Latour uses in constructing what he deems to be a hypothesis. Hypothesis because he does not try to prove anything. He recognises that he comes from a landed bourgeois family and is, himself, a boomer. But dismiss him – or his reasoning – at our peril, I sense. So, the events are: the Brexit vote in the UK; the election of Trump in the USA; the resumption of mass migrations caused by wars, failed attempts at economic development and climate change. The fourth event, however, is the most significant for Latour and it, itself, comes in two parts. First, the signing in Paris on 12 December 2015 of the Climate Change Accord; second, Trump’s policy to withdraw from the Accord.

On the former Latour says: “…on that December day, all the signatory countries, even as they were applauding the success of the improbable agreement, realized with alarm that, if they all went ahead according to the terms of their respective modernization plans, there would be no planet compatible with their hopes for development. They would need several planets; they have only one.” (p. 5). On the second, “By pulling out of the Paris Accord, Trump explicitly triggered, if not a world war, at least a war over what constitutes the theater of operations. “We Americans don’t belong to the same earth as you. Yours may be threatened; ours won’t be!”” (p. 3).

Latour’s method is systematic, if a little post-modern and hence, non-linear. Liberal democracy is capable of delivering the Climate Accord, but not implementation. Even if all signatories tried to implement the Accord, liberal democracy with its growth, modernisation, globalisation and universal wealth (measured in material terms) philosophy is incompatible with delivery. At some point, leaders – obscurantists, in Latour’s parlance – have to tell electorates that under the current economic and political models, “climatic catastrophe” is unavoidable. Latour, however, interprets Trump in an interesting way. I have often thought that climate change deniers actually believe that climate change is not caused by human activity out of ignorance and failure to look at the evidence. For them, it is merely a natural phenomenon that governments need to prepare for. Depriving people of the benefits of capitalist modes of production, trade and consumption would, therefore, not help the environment. However, my naïvety, as is often the case, is clear. The actuality is that the climate change deniers are of two kinds – literally for Latour – the “Out-of-this-World” types who care little for evidence (p. 34, and maybe Trump is the cheerleader here?) and those who know only too well that human activity is the cause not only of climate change, but also of the increased rate of change and the cause of the 6th Great Extinction.

Let us add more to this; socialism is no better at dealing with climate change than is economic liberalism. The left, just like the right, is bi-directional. There are those deep internationalists who believe that modernisation, which usually incorporates economic and political globalisation, is equally important for the socialist realisation of equality (just like the economic liberals). There are also those who think about the local – tradition, the familiar, predictable, local production, etc. Increasingly this perspective captures the so-called “left behind” or “abandoned” on the left who seek controls on immigration, protection for strategic industries and sovereignty (whatever that is). As Latour puts it, “those who value ethnic homogeneity, a focus on patrimony, historicism, nostalgia, inauthentic authenticism”  (p. 53). The UK Labour Party is trying to reconcile these two perspectives against the backdrop of Brexit and goes some way towards explaining the Labour leadership’s support for withdrawal. Many modern social democratic parties in Europe are trying to do the same but losing out to overtly populist parties and Greens alike. For Latour, they are un-reconcilable in one party.

So far there have been three “Attractors” – global and local (both with plus and minus elements, winners and losers) and “Out-of-this-world” those for whom reality triangulated by science and presented by educated elites, scientists, publishers and seemingly opaque institutes has no meaning. There is one more Attractor; namely the Terrestrial (p. 40). This is neither left nor right. In Actor Network terms, Latour’s thing, the Terrestrial is an actor itself. The other attractors are all about human history, human geography, human advancement, the modernisation of the human condition. The Terrestrial, argues Latour, puts human beings back into nature. That nature includes living things as well as the biosphere. It is the critical zone on the planet that makes life – human, animal and plant – possible. The Terrestrial, therefore, is an actor because, in Latour’s terms, it has agency and fights back (p. 41) – or at least responds to stimuli, largely human induced. Civilisation (human of course) is the product of the last 10 millennia of human (often brutal) interaction.

Terrestrialism is, essentially, a third-way. We’ve seen third-ways before. New Labour in the UK was packaged as such back in the late 1990s informed by the work of Anthony Giddens. But that was perhaps a third way in name only. It was an old consensus, a neo-liberal one at that. Latour’s Terrestrialism is a third way not between left and right, but between global and local, plus and minus and climatic catastrophe. Nice theory, but as Latour honestly notes, this is an essay written from the comfort of a Paris residence with no empirical underpinning. There are a few suggestions for how “we” might become Terrestrialists. That is the subject of another – later – blog entry.


Diane Coyle. GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014

Anthony Giddens. Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics. Cambridge, England, UK: Polity Press, 1998

Bruno Latour. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge, England, UK: Polity Press, 2018

Picture: Latour KOKUYO


Those song lyrics

When I was a kid, recorded music was everything. All my pocket money went into buying singles, much to the chagrin of my father. But music was never about the lyrics, more the melody and rhythm. I loved American soul and disco. It is only in my later years that I have revisited some of those tunes…and cringed at the lyrics.

Let’s start with the SOS Band (left). What a beautiful noise. “Just be good to me“, somehow back in 1983 this was alright to dance to. Cutting through the addictive melody, it is the story of a woman who knows that her partner may not be ideal. “I don’t care about your other girls, just be good to me”. And then, “People always telling me, you’re a user, I don’t care what you do to them, just be good to me.” This is a song, at best, celebrating a ghastly lover and certainly not a song to be sung with a great smile on one’s face, but there you go. Incidentally, it is not all bad with the SOS Band, “Do it right“, which preceded “Just be good to me”, has all the ingredients, including lyrics!

Next up, Moments and the Whatnaughts (right), Girls. Another catchy tune with terrible lyrics. Try this: “I’d like to be on an island; With five or six of them fine ones; Even one that ain’t good lookin’; They’re the ones that do the best cookin'”. I did hear that right, there is a correlation between not being good looking and being able to cook? I sense the three Moments and Whatnaughts are all good at cookin’? Their dress sense, also leaves a lot to be desired.

And then there is the voice of Lou Rawls (left). I remember “You’ll never find another love like mine” charting back in 1976 (I was 12, so I am forgiven). What a voice. The sound of Philadelphia. Effortless. But let’s not think about the lyrics. I might be pushing this too far. I always start it with the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. OK his partner is going (maybe gone). Sad, for sure. At first it is a great celebration of what they had, but then it starts getting dark and creepy. “I am not trying to make you stay, baby”…er, yes you are. Then come the threats, oh yes, you’ve made a big mistake: “Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh (you’re gonna miss my lovin’), Late in the midnight hour, baby (you’re gonna miss my lovin’), When it’s cold outside (you’re gonna miss my lovin’)”. And just to rub it in: “You’ll never see what you’ve found in me, You’ll keep searching and searching your whole life through.”

And it still goes on. Listening to Gregory Porter from his album, “Take me to the alley” (2015), there is a track called “Don’t be a fool”. Here we go: “I broke your heart, now and before; But I won’t do it anymore; Trust in me and fall in love again”. Er, so not only has the protagonist done this more than once “now and before”, he then proclaims that he will not do it again and to trust him! Why did Gregory Porter write this song?

The antidote to all of this, of course, is Gloria Gaynor (right) with the anthemic “I will survive”. “Weren’t you the one who tried to break me with goodbye?, Did you think I’d crumble? Did you think I’d lay down and die? Oh, no, not I, I will survive.” And there is also the best bit of practical advice for people in this situation. Change the locks.

More positives on this voyage of rediscovery: The Brothers Johnson, Stomp, Shalamar (all), Nile Rogers (take your pick) and my absolute favourite funk record: Dazz by Brick.

And wasn’t Soul Train extraordinary?




SOS Band: A&M Records

Lou Rawls: Source (WP:NFCC#4)

Gloria Gaynor: still from music video, Youtube

Soultrain: Unknown




Some final thoughts before the end of the year

I spent New Year’s Eve last year in Seville. At the stroke of midnight we drank wine and ate grapes – twelve are required to do it properly. Not sure we quite managed that. Maybe that is why the year has struggled to live up to its potential. I’ve always been a shade reticent with “celebrating” the new year; not only is time – as Douglas Adams would say – “an illusion” (in particular with reference to lunchtime) and hence not particularly meaningful, but also it was clear that 2018 was going to be a disappointment. I certainly had no expectation relating to the competence of the British Government to deal with Brexit, and so it proved. Celebrations for 2019, therefore, are likely to be strained as, once again, the expectations are low. Even lower.

That does not stop me from trying to understand what is going on. We are being assaulted in so many directions and not dealing with it. As I write, drones are disrupting the operation of Gatwick Airport. It is an attack and the “authorities” are finding it very difficult to deal with it, despite the resources at their disposal. Moreover, last evening I read that a senior, well published and prize-winning journalist, Claas Relotius, working for Der Spiegel amongst other mainstream news outlets, has been faking his stories for 8 years without editors noticing. These stories and investigations have been covering important issues, but it turns out to be fake news. These are supposed to be the people that we rely on to inform us. Undermining to say the least.

But how do I understand Brexit and the rise of the Right? I have turned to the work of Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin (above left) in my ongoing book reading – which is one of the positives of 2018 after I committed to buying books from a local independent bookshop rather than buying from the destructive behemoth, Amazon.

It is not easy reading, despite being written in the classic, accessible style of Pelican Books. It is not easy reading because there are some truths that are demonstrated empirically that prick the bubble that I live in, working in a university as I do. First of all, populism and fascism are not the same thing. However much I want to label Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister, a fascist, he’s not (currently). He is a national populist, the distinctions are real and important.

Equally disturbing is the realisation that liberal democracy is not the norm and not necessarily desirable (certainly not for the majority who are not particularly well-served by it). I recall after the Brexit referendum a series of short talks by intellectuals on BBC radio reflecting on the causes of the result. I remember John Gray providing a particularly troubling insight making this very point. Human history is not defined by liberal democracy and is not humanity’s end point.

Eatwell and Goodwin also provide a useful history lesson of the 20th Century. In particular, they trace the development of the EU from its initial foundations, expansion (for example, the UK in 1973) as the EEC, the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties and further deepening with proposals for shared foreign policy and possibly armed forces. What is clear from this history is that the people, the citizens, did not get much of a say in the key decisions and treaties. In just six cases were referendums held, and even then, they provided only tepid endorsement. Elites have indeed run the EU. The European Parliament, we must remember, does not initiate legislation. Not surprising then that it has been held in contempt by national electorates when its members are chosen every five years.

Hence the backlash from the disenfranchised, goes the argument, was inevitable. Aided and abetted by some rather opaque finance being spent by avowed racist populists using social media platforms, the outcome is lose-lose apart for the very few who specialise in disaster capitalism and bigotry. Moreover, the calibre of politicians that we have in a time of crisis such as the British in particular are in, is risible. Liberal democracy is culpable here. On the one hand it is the democratic form that underpins capitalism. It is – possibly counter-intuitively – captured by elites and perpetuates the inequalities that are currently tearing societies apart.

I read on. No grapes this year, as I will not be in Seville. The weather is looking good, though. Happy new year!