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.

References:

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

2 comments so far

  1. Asher Rospigliosi on

    I enjoyed this post and through it, was able to get more of the value of Latour’s contribution. I find Latour daunting. I am charmed and reassured to find we are all three at the least acknowledging our privileged positions. But, there is more here of value. Asking us the question: how to reconcile the attraction of the backward looking familiar, with the fearfully unequal rewards of a globalised, technologically driven future is a welcome, though fraught offer. Thank you.

  2. strassenbahn13 on

    Thank you, Asher. There is a reason for writing these reviews over-and-above the love of it.. I will share this reasoning with you at a later date.


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