Arguing on the wrong axis
“Ceux qui parlent de révolution et de lutte de classes sans se référer explicitement à la vie quotidienne, sans comprendre ce qu’il y a de subversif dans l’amour et de positif dans le refus des contraintes, ceux-là ont dans la bouche un cadavre.” Raoul Vaneigem (1967) 1
A long time ago (1977) I was backstage with the other keynote speakers at a women’s convention, listening to the rumble of voices from the hall on the other side of the curtain. It was getting louder and more agitated. This was due to some bumptious male reporters seating themselves in a front row, talking loudly, and getting on the wick of the sizeable bloc of lesbian feminist activists seated right behind them.
They were not the only feminists in the hall who thought that women not men should be reporting on a women’s convention. In fact, when the matter was put to a show of hands, a majority voted for the men to leave. So when I heard the Minister of Women’s Affairs who was backstage with me say “They’ve got to go!” I was about to agree with her – when I realised just in time that she meant the lesbian activists, not the male reporters!
I learned two important things from this experience (remembering them is the next challenge). The first one was to always check the context before making any assumptions. The second was that although you may think that sharing a label with other people (in this case ‘feminist’) means that you agree on a core set of facts and values and actions – it ain’t necessarily so. I have been acutely aware of this latter point recently as the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand (of which I was a founding member and one of the first four party spokespersons back in 1990) ceased to abide by its foundational principles and went – well – loco. I passed through the usual experience-of-death emotional reactions (they are mainly denial, anger and grief, and they churn around inside one like clothes in a washing machine) and then I came out the other side and started thinking – what the heck is going on, and why?
At this point the books and thinkers I had been reading and paying attention to over the past few years came to my aid. After looking back over my life (see Where I Come From) I realised that it was time to look for new thinking to make sense of the times we are in. I found excellent new writing on the themes of limits to growth, the commons, and on what is happening to non-human beings of all kinds. Also on what I call (splitting the word into its original root words) eco-nomics. 2
I also found some good new writing on political theory and practice – but none that yet adds up to a coherent new philosophy or praxis. This may be because what is needed first is a new epistemology. That is the conclusion Bruno Latour advances in detail in Facing Gaia. In his next and latest book, Down to Earth Politics in the New Climatic Regime he argues for a new ontology as well. (Read David Bollier’s excellent review of the book and the need for a new epistemology at Bruno Latour on Politics in the New Climatic Regime and hear Latour himself summarise it in an on-line lecture.) Latour sketches the outlines of a new cosmology which re-orders how we can think about the political axis we are now on. This is necessary because climate change (or as he terms it ‘the new climatic regime’) has become the new organising principle for political affiliations. It is imperative that it replaces the old organising principle of ‘scientific’ economic growth – or we are all (past tense of a rude verb starting with F, which a philosopher would never use).
Latour illustrates these axes in a cosmological way in Down to Earth (Figures 1 to 6, which are grouped on pages 108 and 109) using drawings of globes, wonky circles and a rocket. In six steps he works his way round to illustrating the new axis. At one end is the old world and its way of thinking, which he terms the Modern (for very good reasons which are summarised in Facing Gaia and covered in depth in his book We Have Never Been Modern and at the other end the new world and its way of thinking, which he terms Terrestrial. 3
Once I re-oriented my thinking to this axis, a lot of the arguments I had been reading on-line between various shades of green and left thinking, where people seemed to be talking past each other, and ending up confusing or confounding me and one another, suddenly became comprehensible. It was not quite as bad as a devout monotheist talking to a practising polytheist about matters of perceived mutual interest and expecting to get agreement, but it was pretty close. Terrestrials and Moderns have a lot in common, and there is a subset of each which considers itself to be both Green and Left, in the old political meanings of those terms. So what was with all the sniping going between eco-modernists, eco-socialists, eco-anarchists, green lefties, left greenies, deep greens and so on? Why were some people praising Extinction Rebellion fulsomely, and others praising it with faint damns? Why were some gung ho for the American Green New Deal and others picking holes in it?
I started making a closer reading of some of the debates, and marking up the positions taken as ‘Modern’ or ‘Terrestrial’. I went through the text of the Green New Deal introduced to the US House of Representatives on 7 February 2019 and did the same. A particularly good example of the Modern/Terrestrial divide was the April 2019 article Degrowth is Utopian, and that’s a good thing by Giorgos Kallis, in which he responds to an article by Matt Huber posted on Socialist Forum which criticises degrowth as ‘Utopian’ and ‘unscientific’. Kallis patiently and politely explains the origins and practice of Utopianism to date, and therefore why ‘Utopian’ is not necessarily a term of abuse or dismissal. He then explains why it is not at all unscientific – on the contrary – to critique growth as a political goal and economic practice which has led to demonstrable suffering for humans and other beings and entities. Furthermore, such growth is totally unsustainable. No matter how much Huber wishes for his kind of ‘scientific’ Utopia in which everyone has a well-paid job and consumes as much as the average American, it can not and will not happen.
Kallis and Huber are both green leftists – but Kallis is clearly a Terrestrial while Huber is a Modern. This is the source of the difference in their positions. The old axis no longer makes any sense; they are literally not on the same page. Poor Huber – his vision of the future is of more of the same – wage slaves on the industrial treadmill churning out more and more items of unnecessary consumption, just not making such a mess of all other life forms and sources of support at the same time. (On the plus side, Huber’s vision still seems more human and less scary than that of Aaron Bastani in Fully Automated Luxury Communism, with its talk of ‘green populism’. Bastani belongs on Latour’s Out-of-this-World pole, along with Peter Thiel, Elon Musk and other sinister billionaire dreamers.)
Which brings me back to the quote at the head of this piece, which translates as “Those who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.” I first read it on a poster in an anarchist bookshop in Montreal in 1979. I bought the poster and brought it home – and lost it in Dunedin in 1989. But the message stayed with me. Vaneigem, a Belgian writer, (now aged 85) said many more sensible (and challenging) things, which were then labelled ‘Situationist’. Today some of them might be considered ‘Terrestrial’, including “The world of the commodity is a world upside-down, which bases itself not upon life but upon the transformation of life into work.”
Four decades later Vaneigem’s anti-Modern attitude, his digs at the would-be revolutionaries who leave their babies on the bus, still appeals to me. As Kallis points out to Huber, socialist revolutionaries of all times have espoused a ‘private sobriety’, “… a sort of personal austerity that real revolutionaries of all times have practised in their personal lives.” A Modern lives to work; a Terrestrial works (just as much as they need to) to live. This is a difficult enough thing to do in itself in a Modern world, made even harder by not being able to easily identify and describe the true and deep sources of one’s opposition to Modern impositions. But some people take the job seriously, and have been at it for a long time; and as someone else who also went against the dominant ideological grain and was successful in the end is alleged to have said: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” 4
In English, from p.26 of Donald Nicholson-Smith’s translation of Raoul Vaneigem (1967) Traité de savoir-vivre a l’usage des jeunes générations, published as The Revolution of Everyday Life by Left Bank Books and Rebel Press in 1983:
“People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to daily life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints – such people have a corpse in their mouth.”
There’s a partial list of them at the end of Where I Come From.
Is this stuff difficult to get one’s head around? You bet. French philosophers must be contenders for the ‘world’s hardest people to understand’ stakes. So is it worth the effort? You bet. Why? Latour himself gave some good reasons when asked in an interview for the Green European Journal: “Are you politically acclaimed in your own country, France?” He replied:
“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. [Emphasis added.] 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.”
Latour is doing the work of describing a world (the world we inhabit, where all living beings and even non-living entities like water and air have agency, not just humans) and insists that it is important that those who purport to do ‘environmental’ politics understand this. If they do not, no matter what ‘progressive’ label they wear or what aspirations they may have, they will perpetuate the Modern separation between Man and Nature, which has led us to this place of climate and ecological crisis.
Martin Luther was alleged to have said this in 1521 when defending his critical attacks on Catholic doctrine and practice to the Diet of Worms. However, apparently there is no good evidence for this – just the sense that it made and makes perfect sense.